Chapter Eight: Offering as Much Variety as Possible

When the modern food pantry era began in the early 1980s, food pantries all across the country seemed to ask themselves the same question, “What food are we going to give out?” Within minutes the volunteers had gathered around a table with pen and paper and talked through what a family’s three-day food supply might be comprised of.

“Let’s see, for breakfast they can have cereal, so let’s give them a box of cereal. But then, oh dear, if they have cereal they’ll need milk. But we don’t want to buy milk, do we? Oh, I know! Let’s give them powdered milk! Okay, then for lunch, let’s give them a can of soup and some bread, peanut butter and jelly,” and on and on. I have talked with hundreds of pantries across America that went through that exact exercise ultimately coming up with a list of specific food items that their pantry seeks and gives out, many with a faithfulness comparable to what they would observe if they knew for a fact that the list had been carried down from the mountain by Moses with the other Ten Commandments!

Those lists must go away! No matter how well-intentioned they were, they have become one of the most vexing barriers to ending hunger in America, blocking billions of pounds of other food products from being made available to the needy, and driving the cost of ending hunger hopelessly up out of reach.

Adding variety increases available food aid

It was the assessment of our Waste Not Want Not Project researchers that as much as 80 percent of the food a food bank can access will never be able to reach a needy family so long as fixed lists of what to give out govern the distribution system. Four out of five pounds of available food won’t be used, and as a result communities will never have enough food to meet the need. What food are we talking about?

Many agencies won’t give out:

■ baked goods except white bread
■ fruit or fruit products except canned fruit cocktail
■ beverages, even when the local health department asks them to because of outdoor heat levels
■ snacks or treats
■ yogurt or fresh vegetables
■ infant formula or baby food

Many agencies won’t stray from their standardized lists to offer food to families that need that help even when their area’s food bank has truckloads of these goods available that will otherwise go to waste.

This is crazy! We will never end hunger if we use only a fraction of the quantities and varieties of food available to us for that purpose. An infinitely more reasonable, more cost-effective, more practical and more effective approach is to assume that if a product has found its way into your area’s food bank or food rescue organization that it is there for a purpose that may well involve one or more of your food pantry’s clients. Take some of it—not huge amounts—but enough to put out for your pantry’s clients.

Variety enables miracles

If you will do that, you will be amazed at what will occur:

■ It will be much easier and much less costly than anything you’ve done before.
■ It will thrill your clients in a way that standardized food boxes never will, and thrilling for you, too.
■ You may well begin experiencing little miracles as products you thought no one would ever want turn out to be the surprise answer to someone’s prayer.

You’ve heard the saying, “God works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform”? So long as a pantry’s staff control and standardize the food that is offered to the pantry’s clients, there are no real opportunities for any miracles to occur. The only food that is going to get through is what you decide to let get through. That doesn’t leave much for God to work with in trying to answer peoples’ prayers. But if you are willing to put aside all that power and all that need for you to control what happens and trust that God wants to use you and your food pantry for his own purposes, you will:

■ Find that within minutes of your putting out some pomegranates an Ethiopian refugee family you didn’t know was in your community will weep with incredulity and delight at your having made available to them a key part of a holiday celebration that you didn’t even know existed.

■ Find the grumpy old man who never talks with anyone dancing a little jig of joy at being able to get a gallon can of water chestnuts.

■ Have an old widow be so excited about being able to get a bag of kitty litter that she almost forgets to take the food she came to the pantry to get.

■ Find that client after client is overjoyed to get the five-gallon institutional bags of pizza sauce that you were absolutely certain no one would ever want.

That is just a partial list of what has happened at pantries that have switched to the Waste Not Want Not methods. The point is that the more variety you offer your pantry’s clients, the more you increase the chances of meeting their needs, and the more you and your pantry can become miracle workers.

Handling suppliers’ objections

Won’t some of your pantry’s supporters react unfavorably to your replacing nice neat rows of “responsible” food—dried beans, powdered milk and white bread—with a messy collection of whatever happens to have made itself available? You can count on it. They will protest, and may even withdraw their support. But you need to stick to your guns and simply affirm to them that the alternative to making these products available is your pantry being more of a barrier than a benefit to ending hunger, and that only after you are certain that everyone who is hungry has enough to eat are you willing to begin refining that food supply to accommodate non-hungry people’s notions of what is good food or bad food.

“Must have” foods aren’t necessary

An issue closely related and equally crippling to ending hunger is the flip side of only giving out certain food. That is the very widespread practice of pantries trying to make certain they always have certain food products or categories of food on their shelves, and going out and buying—or getting their supporters to go out and buy—those products if they aren’t available from the area’s food bank or food rescue organization.

This is a terrible mistake!

Donated food helps families meet other needs

Except in extraordinary situations, when a food bank supplies a family with food, it is supplementing that family’s pool of resources. The family has added up its needs and its ability to satisfactorily address those needs, and has concluded that they need help in order to get by. So when they come to you they are not so much in need of any specific thing or things as they are in need of a bunch of things that cover enough of their needs so that their other resources will stretch far enough to cover everything else.

For example, suppose it was you and your family that was in need. You’ve had a run of very bad luck and find that your food supply and pocket- book are getting too low for comfort. So you go to a food pantry for help. Would you want them to have spent so much money on making sure they have certain food products in stock—products that you may or may not even want—that as a result they have to severely restrict how much help you can get or how often you can get help? Or would you rather be able to pick and choose whatever you can use from a much wider variety of goods?

Almost all clients who have been asked that question immediately opt for the latter. The more things they can get from you that they actually can use, the closer you will have brought them to having enough to meet their needs.

No specific food items are necessary to achieve this. I have heard countless pantry staff affirm with absolute heartfelt conviction that, “We have to give them meat,” or “We always have to have some of every food group on our shelves.” But it is just not true! Ending hunger requires variety, quantity and the right for the client to pick and choose, but does not require any specific food or food item, particularly if and when “making certain the pantry always has some specific item or items” diminishes the total variety or quantity of goods the pantry makes available to its clients.

The only exception to the above rule is if and when a client or clients have a specific need that cannot and will not be met other than by your pantry supplying them with some specific urgently-needed product, such as Ensure for a cancer or AIDS victim, infant formula for a high-risk baby, or rice for a primarily rice-eating immigrant population. Our research suggests that most other clients’ needs can and will be best met by your making available to them the best collection of things the food bank or food rescue stream makes available to you. Period!

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