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”

Bible Study in Charlotte, North Carolina

In 1998 or 1999, John Arnold was invited by the Food Bank in Charlotte, North Carolina to fly down and do a presentation on the Waste Not Want Not research and approach as the keynote address of their annual agency relations conference. The director of that Food Bank seemed concerned that an inappropriate word might slip out of John’s ex-Marine mouth, so she warned him to keep the presentation appropriate for the audience: most of the 400 or so attendees were from churches, specifically Southern Baptist churches. The composition of that audience proved to be the most important factor in their understanding of the message that we should distribute as much food aid as needed, whenever it’s needed.

The Food Bank had flown me down because they were very frustrated. Their distribution had see-sawed between five and six million pounds a year for seven years, when both the supply of food available to them and the need in the area they serve were considerably greater than that, so they really needed agencies to change.

I paid attention to the body language of my audience as I did my presentation, and as the conclusion neared, it seemed to me that I had not made too many converts. People had listened quite respectfully, they had chuckled at the appropriate places in my presentation and occasionally had nodded or gave other reasonably positive reactions, but it didn’t seem like we had gotten them to the point that very much was going to change as a result of this effort.

As I wrapped up the last little bit of the formal normal presentation, I decided to try something new. I said, “Ok folks, we’ll be wrapping up here in just a couple of minutes, probably in a slightly different way than you are used to having keynote addresses end. We’re going to have a quiz!” Then I laughed and said, “I hope you’ve all been paying attention.”

Continue reading “Bible Study in Charlotte, North Carolina”

The Starving Diabetic

Rules and policies are an important part of making it so a food pantry can operate effectively at scale – but if we get too attached to a given way of doing things, some of the people who need our help the most can fall through the cracks. This story comes to us from John Arnold, who was at the time the executive director of Feeding America West Michigan.

Our Food Bank has a small staff and back in 1993 it was even smaller. As a result, sometimes there was no one available to answer the phone when it rang, so pretty much any of us in the office area who heard a phone continue ringing to the third or fourth ring were apt to answer it.

I did that one Friday morning and found myself dealing with a man who sounded to be about my same age, who reported that he had been laid off from his job at one of our big local companies – a company whose employees believed their jobs would be secure forever. He had pretty much spent all his money and as such he now had no money, had no food, and in fact had not eaten in several days. He was justifiably apprehensive that he might be dying over the weekend as a result of not having food because he was severely diabetic.

He was extremely upset, extremely frustrated and frightened by his situation and was crying as he told me all of this. I tried to reassure him as much as I possibly could that he absolutely would be receiving food assistance yet that day, but I explained that we don’t normally receive these kind of calls and so it was going to take me a couple of minutes to figure out a game plan for getting him that food. So, I again asked him to try to calm down as much as he could and be reassured that he would be getting some food aid, and would he give me his address so that I could figure out what pantry or pantries he might be near.

He did, and I was able to track down that he lived only several blocks from one of the large pantries here in Grand Rapids that people are referred to when they call the United Way’s information and referral service. It just so happened I had an updated sheet on what days and hours those pantries were open, and I saw that that one was open on Fridays. That was a pretty amazing set of happy coincidences, that he was near one of those big pantries and that it was open that day. I went back on the line with the caller and told him about the pantry and that he should get over there and explain his situation, and that they would undoubtedly supply him with food.

I didn’t think there would be a problem, but just in case, I asked him if he did run into any trouble to please call me back, and I’ll be darned if about thirty minutes later he didn’t do exactly that. This time he was even more upset than before. He was so upset in fact that he could not explain why the pantry had refused to serve him. All I was able to get from him was that indeed he had gone to the pantry I had directed him to, he had asked for help, and he had been refused help.

That made me pretty upset too, and I promised him that within the hour he would have food delivered to him if I had to bring it to him myself. I was fully prepared to do that if it turned out to be necessary, but before I went out and loaded my car full of food, I asked him to let me put him on hold for a moment so that I could call that pantry and find out why they had refused to serve him. With my reassurance that he would be getting food, even if I had to bring it to him myself, he was OK with that. So I put him on hold and I called that pantry, which is one of the better known and better respected of the food pantries in Grand Rapids, and I asked them, “Why did you refuse to serve this gentleman that I referred to you?”

Without batting an eye, they explained to me, “On Friday we serve repeat users. We do all of our new client intakes on Tuesdays.”

Appalled, I demanded that they immediately drop whatever they were doing and assemble a wonderful array of food and deliver it to that man’s house. Although they had apparently not understood the seriousness of that client’s need for food, they did apparently understand what the consequences were going to be if they did not do as I asked them to. So they did deliver food to this gentleman, and began serving him as they ought to have in the first place.