The Importance of Variety: A Food Bank With No Food

This story comes to us from John Arnold, then Executive Director of Feeding America West Michigan.

You may remember from our story about The Fruit Cocktail and Rice Guy that the impetus for pursuing the Waste Not Want Not research was our agencies’ propensity to stick very closely to a very specific shopping list – while at the same time we were turning away millions of pounds of product each month.  Today we’ll be showing that that phenomenon was not restricted to our service area as we begin sharing stories relevant to the finding that we can only end hunger if we provide the entire variety of donated foods made available to the charity sector.

On the last morning of the 2001 National Conference in Atlanta, I sat down to breakfast at a table where I didn’t recognize anyone.  After I sat down, I realized that the person to my left was sobbing.  At a pause in her sobs, as gently as I could I said that while it was clearly none of my business, she was obviously pretty upset about something, and was there anything that I or anyone could maybe do to help?

She managed to collect herself enough to semi-introduce herself as a relatively new director of a food bank.   This was her first conference, and unfortunately it was turning out it was probably going to be her last conference because it was pretty certain that when she went back to her food bank it would be to shut it down because they were failing financially and otherwise because they simply had no food and she didn’t know what to do about it.

I’m afraid I may even have chuckled a little as I said, “Well I think you just did what you need to do.  You just told somebody, and by happiest of coincidences, you just told somebody who knows everybody, more or less.  Certainly everybody who has a lot of food.  There is simply no way on earth that your food bank is going to fail for lack of food.  I can personally guarantee you of that, even if I have to fill it myself; I can do so, and I will.”

Continue reading “The Importance of Variety: A Food Bank With No Food”

How the Scripture Collections Came to Be

This origin story to the Words of Faith section of our site comes to us from John Arnold.

Once the Waste Not Want Not research began developing its findings about what was and was not working well in the charity food distribution system, and what things really needed to change, I and the other staff of the Food Bank in our conversations with agencies that the Food Bank serves began making the case for those changes being made.  To say that our entreaties on these matters were severely rebuffed would be something of an understatement.

Many agencies became openly hostile as we gently suggested that they make changes in their operations such as letting needy people draw food as food aid was needed and not just once every 30 days or three times a year, or whatever other sort of arbitrary limit had been placed on their getting help, or that clients be permitted to make their own food selections instead of being given an arbitrary selection of product, or that clients be permitted to take as much food as they needed instead of being given a quantity of food totally without regard to the amount of help they needed, etc.  Many agencies found these sorts of suggestions to be very offensive and threatening, and in rebuffing our pleas, they frequently disparaged the people that they served in ways that I had never heard before.

I had always assumed that everyone who worked in a charity food agency, particularly people who worked there as volunteers, were there because of a love of the poor and a desire to serve them.  It turns out that instead many of those who gravitate to working in such agencies are there apparently more as a result of their dislike and distrust of the needy and a desire to “protect” their church from “being taken advantage of” by “those people.”  It was brutal, what I heard.

I had never considered the possibility that agencies operating almost entirely out of churches or other faith based organizations could have such a negative attitude toward the poor and could be so callous in dismissing the importance of needy people being served in a way that the needy found comforting and welcoming.  The general sense that I got from many of the agencies I visited was that how needy people felt about how they were treated simply did not matter.  That was a shock.

I am not an overtly religious person, but I did go to church just enough as a child to be somewhat familiar with what the Bible and similar texts have to say about dealing with the needy and the poor, and I was pretty sure that it had a much more positive attitude toward the poor and about how the poor were supposed to be treated than I was hearing expressed in my meetings with churches and other agencies about these matters.  So one day just to see if my recollections were correct, I got out a Bible I had been given when I was doing some work for The Salvation Army and started thumbing through it to see what sorts of things it did say about dealing with the needy.  Continue reading “How the Scripture Collections Came to Be”

The Fruit Cocktail and Rice Guy

Early in the process that ultimately led to the Waste-Not Want-Not project and the writing of Charity Food Programs That Can End Hunger in America, John Arnold and his staff at Feeding America West Michigan began pondering what they could do differently or more efficiently to distribute enough food via charitable food assistance programs to meet the need for food assistance in their service area. And pretty soon a piece of the answer arrived with an agency representative in a story we’ll call “The Fruit Cocktail and Rice Guy.”

Continue reading “The Fruit Cocktail and Rice Guy”

On Choice: The Cranberries and Pudding Story, Part 2

This is a continuation of the cranberries story we started a week ago.

I told the cranberry story as part of my presentation up at the Food Bank of Alaska as part of their agency conference.  I told the story as an example of why it’s kind of interesting and fun to get out of the way and let forces that we don’t control play a role in designing what happens.

At the end of my presentation, a young man came up, identified himself as the manager of a large pantry at a big multi-service agency up there in Anchorage.  He said, “Oh my goodness, I’ve never thought about these issues this way. You’ve completely changed my thinking about how a food pantry should run.  I am totally committed to changing my pantry from doing everything wrong to doing everything right.  I hope to get that done as quickly as possible, but it’ll take a little while to work through the politics of the organization because it would represent quite a change for them.”

He knew, though, that he could immediately make one of the interim changes that I had commended as a possibility.  While they continued giving out their standardized bags, he would come to the Food Bank, get a big selection of things that they did not include in their standardized bag, and put them out on what he was going to call the “Odds and Ends” table.  After people had been given their standardized bag of food, they would be invited to go over and pick out an item per family member.

I must not have given the impression of being sufficiently impressed at that point, because he persisted, saying that he would even be taking and offering out various types of pudding.  He explained that at some earlier point in his life he had been hospitalized with some ailment for an extended period of time – certainly weeks, if not months – and the only thing they had let him have to eat was pudding, to the point that the very thought of pudding was enough to make him run from the room screaming.  He pointed out to me that, you never know, it might be like those cranberries, there could be somebody that needs pudding.

Continue reading “On Choice: The Cranberries and Pudding Story, Part 2”

On Choice: The Cranberries and Pudding Story, Part 1

This story of client choice comes to us from John Arnold, then the executive director of Feeding America West Michigan.

Fairly often, farmers and private individuals or even companies will give the Food Bank small quantities of kind of unusual products.  With those donations, rather than logging them into the computer and trying to order them out in a computerized system, we just put them out in an area we call our shopping area.  Agencies are able to get a shopping cart and walk around in that area and see if there’s anything they would like to take.  We roll the cart onto a floor scale and subtract the weight of the cart, and then the agency pays us our handling fee based on the weight of the product they’ve taken.

Well, out in the shopping area, we experienced the beginning of a sequence of events that if not outright miracles are at least pretty darn close, close enough for our purposes.  It all began one day when a farmer dropped off a couple of bushels of whole fresh raw cranberries to us.  Continue reading “On Choice: The Cranberries and Pudding Story, Part 1”

Three Strikes and You’re Out

In Bible Study in Charlotte, North Carolina, we showed how religious teachings align with Waste Not Want Not recommendations. Today, this anecdote from John Arnold, then the executive director of Feeding America West Michigan, will emphasize what happens when “filling the cup to overflowing” falls by the wayside, and people are not provided with as much help as they need.

Not all Food Bank stories have happy endings.  The Waste Not Want Not research that we did indicated that the issues we had identified as barriers in the charity food system were incredibly important, but only occasionally were we confronted with how starkly awful that reality was.

I had such an experience when I answered the phone there at the Food Bank one day and had a weeping disabled widow explain to me that she had just been to her area’s food pantry for the third time in that calendar year, and had been told by that pantry that their rule was that people could get food assistance only three times in a calendar year so as to keep those clients from becoming dependant on the pantry.

Through her sobs, she explained that she had gone to the pantry those three times because with the high winter utility bills she was having to pay, there was no money left for any food.  She was calling me with this report on February 27th.  If that food pantry really did stick to its rule, she was going to be unable to get any additional food for ten more months.

All I could do was advise her to go back to that pantry and explain to them exactly what she had explained to me in hopes that they would do the right thing and serve her.

The 90 Second Miracle, or: The difference not buying food makes

Today’s story of “The 90 Second Miracle” comes to us from John Arnold, then the executive director of Feeding America West Michigan. It illustrates the impact that a food pantry switching to use donated food (via the food banking system) rather than relying on retail purchasing can have.

One time I presented on the Waste-Not Want-Not recommendations at a conference at a Second Harvest national conference in Chicago.  At the end of my presentation, a woman came up and identified herself as the director of – I believe she said – the largest food pantry in New York City.

She was shaking her head in incredulity and said, “Oh my goodness, I have never thought of these issues in the way you’ve described them.  My pantry has been doing everything wrong, and I am committed to switching it completely over to the methods that you recommend.”

“But,” she said, “you’re going to have to help me out a little bit. My church already supports our pantry very generously; I just don’t think I can go back and get a lot more money from them… and I’m concerned that if instead of only letting people get food once a month, and making them prove themselves worthy and then giving them a three day box…” Continue reading “The 90 Second Miracle, or: The difference not buying food makes”

When a “Cheater” Gets Caught

This shocking story of the true cost of efforts to “protect” the charitable food system from people who need more help than they are offered comes to us from John Arnold, then the Executive Director of Feeding America West Michigan.

One day I saw one of the Food Bank’s board members talking to somebody when I was driving downtown in Grand Rapids’ “Bowery” area.  It was always fun to talk with that board member, so I found a parking spot and went over to see what was going on.  As I approached, the woman he was talking with had her back to me, and he saw me coming and got his little grin on his face.  As I neared them, he kind of wrapped his arm around her and turned her a little so that she could see me coming, but his arm was there so that she also couldn’t escape.

When I got up to them he said to her, “Here’s somebody that I know would really like to meet you and talk with you because he supplies food to those food pantries that you used to scam food from to buy coke back when you were addicted.”  She just blanched and turned beet red.

I just had to laugh and I said to her, “I am so sorry, I tried to bring him up right, but there was only so much I could do, he just turned out the way he is,” to try to take the embarrassment out of it for her.  “Plus,” I said, “I noticed that in his introduction of you that everything was in past tense, as in things that were, that no longer are.”  And she said yeah, that was right, that she had actually been clean and off drugs for a couple of years and had her kids back again and was doing ok now.

I said, “It’s really none of my business and I don’t mean to pry, but boy if I could ask you a couple of questions it would really help me understand some things that I need to understand and haven’t been able to get answers to.”  She replied, “OK, I guess. I’d be glad to help if I can.”

So I asked, “This deal of getting food from pantries, and then selling it and buying drugs… how does that even work?  I’ve lived in New York City, I’ve lived in Los Angeles and Chicago, St. Louis, and now here in Grand Rapids, and I have never had anyone approach me out on the street with a bunch of extra pockets sewn into the inside lining of their coat and kind of flip it open and say ‘Hey, would you like to buy some tuna fish?’ or ‘I’m running a special on cornmeal today.’  How does this selling food pantry food work?”

She looked a little thoughtful and then she said that actually, when she went to a pantry, she would pretty much bring home whatever they gave her. She had some kids, and they would go through it and they would sort out any of it they could use and they tended to eat that.  Then, for the stuff that they couldn’t use, there were other drug users, obviously, that she was in fairly close and regular contact with; there was kind of a quid pro quo of ‘If you’ve got some drugs and I need some and I don’t have any, maybe you’d help me out, and here I’ve got some food, and maybe you don’t have any and maybe I could help you out.’  So there was some sharing of the food with other at-risk people.

I said: “But you didn’t actually go anywhere and sell it?”  She said: “Well no, there’s no place.  Where would you sell it?”  I said: “And your drug dealer wouldn’t take it as payment for drugs?”

She laughed at the very suggestion, and said, “I don’t think so, ‘cause he’s gotta pay his supplier and I guarantee you he doesn’t want a bag of cornmeal!”

What came out of that conversation was a realization that this myth of food being sold and people buying drugs just truly really does not happen in the real world because it cannot happen. There is no secondary market for random bits of food, and no drug dealer is going to take a bag of food in exchange for the drug.  In fact her use of the food ultimately put it in the hands of her own household or into the hands of other at risk people, so ultimately it went to where it was supposed to, with her passing it on.

My next question was about scamming pantries and getting food from more than one of them.  She said that she had gotten some fake IDs and was drawing food from multiple pantries because there only was a certain amount that she could use from each of the pantries she visited and even if she had been able to use it all, it was never enough.

So she had gotten some fake IDs and did use multiple pantries a month.  Had she ever gotten caught?  Yes, eventually she did.  What happened afterwards was that the pantries cut her off.  A lot of the pantries share information back and forth, and, she said, “They put out the word on me and nobody would ever serve me again.”

I asked, “What did you do then?”  At that point I didn’t even begin to imagine what the answer would be.  The answer was that she turned tricks, she became a prostitute.  In Grand Rapids, Michigan in the late 1990s this woman had been rejected, had been abandoned by the faith community, and had essentially been thrown to the wolves in order to protect food from people like her.  So she had worked as a prostitute in the years that Grand Rapids had a serial killer who ultimately killed – I believe – 11 women who were believed to be engaged in prostitution.

What that added up to was that during the time that she was able to get food from pantries, there was a fairly good chance that what we were doing was saving her life.  We were keeping her off the streets and away from that killer, not to mention AIDS and the other things that can come from prostitution even on its best days.  When “the system worked” and a cheater was caught and punished by being cut off, the system, the church tossed this person to the gutter.

Why don’t clients protest?

In 1995, six months into the formal Waste Not Want Not research, the two lead researchers came to John to deliver some rather disquieting news: they had been talking with many clients – hundreds – about the experience of accessing food assistance from food pantries, and they had not found a single client who was able to describe their food pantry experience in positive terms. John was appalled, so he set out to see if he could find one by inviting a group of clients to discuss their experiences in seeking and receiving food aid from pantries.

In the conversation of this group of African-American women, it had come up that they generally did feel disrespected and distrusted in the intake process or eligibility screening they had gone through. They were frustrated about being able to get food only once a month and they were mystified that often the amount of food they needed was never even asked about. It was as though that issue didn’t even matter. And then they were handed an arbitrary selection of food, again totally without regard to their realities or needs or abilities. The net result was that they were very inadequately provided with help in a very humiliating, frustrating way.

Eventually I got too perplexed: How could people continue coming in and going through the process and getting food and thanking the pantry and leaving – and never indicate to the pantry that the system wasn’t working well? It was conceivable that a pantry could be genuinely clueless, that the system they were using wasn’t working well from the client’s perspective.

So I challenged to this group of women, “Have you ever expressed your concern or dismay or displeasure to the pantry? Have you ever told them? Because if you haven’t told them that the system they’re using is a bad one in need of correction, they’re just going to go on using it forever.”

Continue reading “Why don’t clients protest?”

On Choice: The Overflowing Storeroom

Changing long-set patterns of behavior and thought can be very difficult – as shown by this this John Arnold story from a visit to a Texas food pantry.

When we arrived at the pantry, I was introduced by the person from the Food Bank who was taking me around visiting agencies as this wonderful out of town expert on the subject of how food pantries should operate. It was a little embarrassing. But the pantry volunteers were just delighted that I had come because they were grappling with a seemingly insoluble problem and were just at their wits end, not knowing what to do. They were hoping that maybe I would be able to figure out a solution for them. I said, “Well, I’d certainly be willing to take a look at this situation, and be willing to contribute whatever I could in the way of a recommendation or solution.”

So they took me back into their food storage area, where they had their food up on the sort of screw-together metal shelving you could buy at K-Mart. They explained that their pantry gave out a standardized food bag, and despite their best efforts to get people to donate only what was on the list of what they put in their standardized bag, people continued to give them things that weren’t on the list. Those “extra” items had accumulated on their shelves and were now filling the storage area to the point that they were running out of room, and they just didn’t know what to do about that situation!

Continue reading “On Choice: The Overflowing Storeroom”