Chapter Nine: Reduce Waste and Humiliation—Let Clients Assemble Their Own Food Boxes

The most revolutionary and most necessary of needed reforms is to let clients assemble their own food boxes. No other single reform makes more difference, is simpler or is more difficult to get pantries to actually do!

But if we want to end hunger, you must do it for at least a half-dozen good reasons.

But first, what are we talking about? Ideally, food pantries set themselves up like little grocery stores with food shelves stocked with the biggest and best variety of goods, including food and non-food items—toothpaste, toilet paper and dish soap—that they have obtained from their local food bank or food rescue system. Clients browse among the goods just as they would at a store. If some very popular items are available only in limited supply, it is perfectly okay for the pantry to put limits on how much or many of that item any one family can take. Otherwise, food pantries should permit clients to pick out what they want and need without further direction or interference from the food pantry’s staff.

Trusting clients helps end hunger

Are you reeling in incredulity at the idea of letting people take what they want? Remember, research shows that the key to ending hunger is treating pantry clients with the same levels of trust and respect you would want to be shown if you were in their shoes.

Imagine that you have fallen on hard times and need to turn to a pantry for help.

Which style of service would you prefer?

■ Receive a standardized food box assembled completely without regard to your family’s situation or needs.
■ Assemble your own food box but only within certain pre-set guidelines, such as two items from each food group.
■ Assemble your own food box but only under the guidance and supervision of a pantry staff person walking along side you to ensure you make approved choices.
■ Pick out your own food just as you would at a store.

When given these choices most people pick number 4, with a slight reservation: They would appreciate being given some idea of how much is fair, reasonable or okay for them to take, because when given the opportunity to take as much as they want to, a vast majority of people will most fear taking more than they should have, thereby depriving some other, possibly worse-off family, of the help they need.

Clients usually don’t select enough food

It is truly heartwarming to observe this phenomenon. Pantries that always have given out standardized food boxes, in part out of a fear that the poor are too greedy, irresponsible, dishonest or unscrupulous to be trusted, suddenly finding that when they switch to letting those clients pick out their own food, that those very same clients are actually very nice people who care very much about the wellbeing of others in need and about “doing what is right.”

In fact, if left entirely to their own discretion, most food pantry clients will take significantly less help than they really need. This phenomenon is so widespread and such a problem that many client-shopping food pantries have eventually found themselves needing to employ some means of coaxing clients to take more than they otherwise might. The most common of those systems is for the pantry’s staff to do a quick assessment of how much help the family needs resulting in them being given a goal of a certain number of pounds of goods to take. For example, a family of four that needs a week’s worth of help could be directed to multiply four people by four pounds per day, which equals 16 pounds per day, multiplied by seven days, results in a total of 112 pounds. So they would be given a slip that says they should take 112 pounds of goods.

If you then have some scales here and there in the pantry, clients can pace and prioritize their selections toward that goal figure. If you have a bigger scale at the end of the process to get a total weight on what they have taken for the pantry’s records, you may be surprised at how much less most people will take than you calculated that they should have. It isn’t at all unusual to have people take 30-50 percent less than they were told to. So instead of having to put limits to keep people from taking too much, you may find your greater need is finding ways to get people to take enough.

Benefits of client-assembled boxes

Letting clients assemble their own food boxes respects clients, their wellbeing and their dignity, as well as your dignity. There is no such thing as an average family or need. Every family your food pantry serves is unique. The notion that it is somehow better or fairer to give every family the same quantity and variety of food is just wrong. What is fair about giving a family that needs a single day’s worth of help and a family that needs 10 days’ worth of help both five days’ worth of help? What is fair about giving an Anglo-American family that doesn’t eat rice and a Vietnamese-American family that eats mostly rice a one pound bag of rice each? What is fair about giving dried beans to a family whose utilities have been cut off and so have no way to cook them? What is fair about giving bacon to a family whose religion abhors pigs? What families will and will not eat, can or cannot use, is so unique to each family that ignoring or disregarding those differences genuinely is profoundly disrespectful of those families even if and when it arises from the purest of motives.

Standardized boxes increase waste

Letting people pick out their own food achieves the third huge leap of cost-effectiveness that is necessary to draw the cost of ending hunger down to levels communities can afford. What our Waste Not Want Not research found was that if people are given arbitrary selections of food without regard to their needs, tastes, habits, traditions, abilities and circumstances that up to half the food given will not ultimately be consumed by those intended beneficiaries. You can rail all day about how “if they are hungry, they should eat it,” or how “beggars can’t be choosers,” or anything else along those lines that you’d like to. But at the end of the day the fact will remain that up to 50 percent of what you will have given out that day will have been wasted.

Evidence of God’s Love
What one eats, and what one feeds one’s family are simply too intimate and too personal to be successfully generalized or averaged. Psychologists would describe your picking out someone else’s food for them as a “parent-child transaction,” meaning that you will have translated your having control of the food and of their access to it into the kind of authority over them that a parent might have over a child. When such a situation develops between parties who ought to have been on a more equal footing, the transaction is doomed. Even if you both smile and talk nice, your hearts will instinctively recoil from how wrong it all is—how humiliating it is for both of you for you to have so much power over them and for them to be so profoundly powerless before you.

If your goal—or at least one of your goals—is to bless those whom your pantry serves with evidence of God’s love for them, you cannot succeed if the process you use sets up parent-child transactions. The only way to communicate love and respect is by employing practices that let you relate as adult to adult. And what that literally has to mean, in a food pantry setting, is that they get to pick out their own food.

What are the implications of this for your community?

If you continue giving out standardized food boxes, you will need to double both the estimated food need from Chapter Two and the estimated number of food pantries from Chapter Three, in order to end hunger.

Why? Because if you employ practices that result in 50 percent of your food being wasted, you need twice as much food to end hunger.

The Waste Not Want Not Project recommendations show that the average community in America today can essentially double its capacity to address its hunger problem by switching from giving out standardized food boxes to letting clients pick out their own food.

Let’s summarize the impact that the Waste Not Want Not Project recommendations can have if employed by your food pantry:

■ You learned how to drop the cost of ending hunger by getting people to give you money instead of food purchased at retail prices.
■ You learned how to get 20 times more food per dollar spent by drawing food from your area’s food bank or food rescue organization.

These two changes increase your community’s capacity to end hunger by approximately 26.6 times that of the more traditional food drive.

Add in a 50 percent reduction in waste achieved by your letting clients pick out their own food, and guess what? You will have increased your community’s capacity to address its hunger problem by 53 times what the other system did or ever could do! That is, without drawing a single additional new dollar into the hunger-relief effort, you will have increased the impact of the dollars already being devoted to hunger relief by up to 53 times what those same dollars could or would have achieved if you had continued using them in the old ways.

How big is that? Can you imagine having 50 times more food or money than your pantry currently has? What would that do to your ability to let people get as much help as they need whenever they need it?

Various “Client Choice” Charity Food Distribution Models

If the space available for your food pantry won’t gracefully accommodate a client shopping system, or if your organization can’t or won’t go to full client-shopping all at once, there are some options available to you.

Fixed Menu Plus “Grab Bag” Options

Your pantry distributes its traditional fixed, standardized food box, but then also displays varieties of additional items from the pantry, permitting clients to take limited amounts—for example, one bag, one item per household member, six items—or unlimited amounts of those goods. Fresh produce, bread and baked goods or any “odds and ends” which find their way into the pantry are excellent candidates for such distribution.

Fixed Menu Bags for Emergencies (House Burned Down Last Night) Client- Selected Assortments for Others

Your pantry maintains a supply of fixed menu bags for those few clients who have no food in the house and so must be supplied with everything needed for balanced meals until the crisis passes. All other clients—those who need supplemental assistance—are permitted to select assortments of goods drawn from the pantry without any pretext of those goods meeting all their nutritional needs.

Food Pyramid Food Bank Assortment

Your pantry attempts to draw and stock some items from each part of the food pyramid and displays those goods, permitting clients to take as much of those goods, figuring a little over a pound per person per meal, it will take to meet their needs. The Community Action House in Holland, Mich., has color-coded shelving that aids clients in their selecting what food to take.

Clients Browse From a List of Available Goods

Your pantry acquires the best variety of food it can from your local food bank and itemizes what is available on a list provided clients as they arrive to pick up food. Clients use the list to indicate the items they want, and the pantry staff assembles their box from that list.

The possibilities are endless. The key is to bring clients into the decision-making process so that their preferences and needs can be addressed better than could have been possible any other way.

If you can’t get a pantry to offer choices, at least see if you can coax them into setting up a swap table where clients can exchange things from their standardized food box. Even that very limited amount of being able to make choices is better than having no opportunities for making choices at all.

Real-Life Examples

“Manna Project” Open Distribution

The Manna Project, in Petoskey, Mich., has been successfully distributing food for two decades by simply getting from the food bank all that they can, displaying it and permitting clients to take what they need as much and as often as the client needs to. In Grand Rapids, Mich., the Degage Ministries Pantry Partners Food Pantry won every award for nonprofit agency excellence available to nonprofit groups there by being the first pantry in the area to do pretty much the same thing.

“Shopping Within A Budget” Client Choice Distribution

At the beautiful, very store-like pantries of Christian Community Action in Lewisville and The Colony, near Dallas, Texas, volunteers check the prices of goods in the store and mark those prices on goods in the pantry. Each client is given a budget (how many dollars’ worth of food they can take) and then “shops” through the pantry within that budget.

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