Asking for food assistance in America ranks as one of the most humiliating experiences most people can imagine ever having to endure. By the time a needy person’s hand reaches for the doorknob of your food pantry they are just about as frightened, frustrated and humiliated as they are ever going to be.
And when they open that door, what happens? How are they greeted? Are they greeted? How does the greeting compare to that extended to visitors at the Sunday church services? Are they made to feel welcome? Is the urgency of their quest respected with prompt attention, or at least a reasonable explanation? “Hi. As you can see, we have a number of people in line ahead of you, but we will get to you as quickly as we can. Would you like a cup of coffee while you wait?”
When they do get to the intake desk, how is it arranged? Are they seated opposite the intake worker—an adversarial arrangement—or at the side of the desk—a conversational arrangement? Is their chair comparable to the one the intake worker has or is it yet another reminder of their “beggar” status? Can they see what the intake worker writes down or enters into the computer? And is the tone of the intake interview one of reassurance? “I just need to get down some basic facts and figures to keep the powers-that-be happy, and then we will get you into the pantry, okay?” Or is the interview done in such a way that the person could easily feel distrusted or disrespected? “We have to weed out liars and cheaters.”
Gather reasonable information
The difference is huge. Our research suggests that as many as 40 percent of those in need will go hungry rather than submit to a poorly-structured screening process. They are already completely stressed out about having to ask for food in the first place. At the first hint of distrust, disrespect or further humiliation they will bolt for the door and you will never see them again, not because they aren’t in need, but because your pantry’s practices were more than they could bear. If that happens, you will never end hunger. You can’t. You can only end hunger if those who need food aid are encouraged to seek and access it.
Okay, but what information about clients or what proof of need or other information should a food pantry require? Our research recommends obtaining:
■ Their name, address and phone number, needed in case there should ever be a food recall
■ A count of how many people are in their household
■ Their best guess of how many days’ worth of food aid they need to get from this visit to the pantry so you can multiply that times four pounds per person in the household to suggest a minimum amount of pounds of food they should take
■ And briefly, why they are in need. For example, someone lost their job, someone is sick, they got behind on bills, their purse was stolen or some other reason. This is not to judge them, but to help the pantry keep its finger on the pulse of what is driving need in the community.
Those are all just questions and answers. We do not recommend requiring that they prove anything—not their address, their income or anything else. All that requiring positive identification does is say, “We don’t trust you.” Imagine that you are the needy person, and for the first time ever you’ve asked a church to help you, and instead of just helping you they ask for proof of your income and two forms of identification? That could leave a scar that could take a lifetime to heal—that in your hour of need the church treated you no better than some government bureaucracy would have.
Food pantry abuse is a myth
Most people—believe it or not— are basically honest and wouldn’t be caught dead within 100 yards of a food pantry unless they really are in need of help. We shouldn’t be worried about people scamming the system. But somewhere in the process—for your own peace of mind and, perhaps, to reassure your supporters and suppliers—we recommend asking clients to sign a brief, simple declaration of need. Something such as: “I understand that the (name of pantry) exists to provide food assistance to people and families who really need that help. By accessing help from the pantry I affirm that my household genuinely needs food assistance.”
What about scammers? People scamming food pantries to get food to sell to buy drugs or whatever is one of those urban legends that just will not die despite overwhelming evidence that it simply doesn’t happen. There simply is no market out on the streets for a can of this and a box of that. And no drug dealer is going to take a bag of groceries for a fix. And most drugs cost too much anyway! In the Jewish and Christian traditions, aid provided to someone in need is an interest-bearing secured loan from the giver to God, and a gift from God to the needy person (Proverbs 19:17). So what the needy person does with the food isn’t your concern. It’s God’s. Leave it there.
When suppliers demand more client information
A bigger problem is what do you do if a donor or supplier requires you to demand proof of income or some other information from those you serve. None of the world’s major religious faiths’ guiding scriptural texts make allowance for that. So what is a faith-based group to do? We are aware of three options:
■ Coax the donor or supplier to modify their requirements so as to permit you to follow your faith’s teachings more faithfully.
■ Keep their food separate from the food you have that doesn’t fall under their jurisdiction, and give clients the choice of whether to access one, the other, or both supplies. Only collect detailed information from clients who ask for the food that requires it.
■ Decline handling the food or money from that source.
If we are going to end hunger we must have a food distribution process that doesn’t scare off 20-40 percent of the needy. That means seriously paying attention to how people are greeted and treated when they walk through your pantry’s front door, and when they are interviewed at your intake desk.
Most clients have short-term food needs
Most people who seek food aid from you likely will do so only one or two times. Our research recommends just serving them. If, however, someone starts coming back week after week after week or for multiple months, it is perfectly reasonable for you to discuss their situation with them to pin down more clearly exactly what is driving their need, and if there are other or additional forms of aid they perhaps should be pursuing—for example, food stamps.
The reality is that some people may need your help for the rest of their lives—for example, a widowed retiree with a lot of health problems but only a small Social Security check to live on. But most people should be moving on with their lives within six months or so of when they begin drawing food, or may need some gentle assistance or encouragement in that direction.