Chapter Six: Permitting Needy People to Access Food Aid as Often as They Need

The average American family sends someone to the store for food approximately 2.2 times per week, or about 9 times per month. They don’t necessarily want or plan on making all those extra trips. It is just a matter of something coming up that results in their needing some item or items they don’t have. They might find, in planning a meal, that they are out of some key ingredient, or that something they thought was good has spoiled. Or they might develop some unanticipated need such as an illness, unexpected visitors or something needed for school. The possibilities are endless and it doesn’t have to do with poor planning. Rather, it is how things seem to go in our society and culture.

But across the United States, churches and other charity agencies almost universally permit needy families to access food aid only once per month. Why only once per month? These days, it is mostly a case of newer pantries simply copying older pantries. But when the modern era of food pantries began in the early 1980s it all tracked back to one wellspring: The government! The government sends out welfare and Social Security checks once a month. The government issues food stamps once a month. The government even hands out USDA commodities once a month. So when churches and other nonprofit groups started looking around for clues about how to do this the right way instead of looking to their religious faith’s teachings for guidance, they simply mirrored what the government was doing!

We don’t have a “once a month” faith

This is a terrible mistake. There is no “once a month” rule in the Bible, the Tanakh, the Koran or any other significant religious text. They all advocate helping whenever help is needed.

If yours is a faith-based organization, there is simply no excuse for limiting how often needy people can access help. Copying the government is the last thing you should do.

And for all groups, please consider this: What other emergency service is parceled out according to the calendar instead of according to the need? None! Can you imagine calling the police or fire department or going to the emergency room and being denied assisyance because you recently were aided? Nobody does that except thousands of food pantries across America who must begin permitting needy families to access food assistance whenever they need it if hunger is ever to be overcome.

If people need help every week or two but are permitted to access it only once a month, or three times per year or any other totally arbitrary interval unrelated to meeting their need, then that part of your area’s charity food pipeline is much smaller than it must be to end hunger.

Traditionally, agencies confronted with this reality try to beg off that they can’t afford to let people draw food any more often. But what our research suggests this is true only when:

■ The pantry relies on store-purchased or food drive-supplied food instead of on goods they could be drawing from their area’s food bank or food rescue organization.

■ Pantries give clients pre-assembled food boxes instead of letting them assemble their own food boxes. (More on this later.)

■ Pantries grossly overestimate how often people will use the pantry if given the opportunity to use it as needed.

Increased use can be offset

The increased use of your food pantry can easily be offset by the efficiencies the Waste Not Want Not methods achieve, to the point where there is a net cost-reduction for the pantry. That is, you can actually spend less in meeting the area’s complete need than you had spent in meeting only a fraction of it.

If your family were in need, what would you want your area’s food pantries to do? Acquire its food in the most cost-effective ways and let you access help as you need it? Or use less-cost-effective food acquisition methods and use that as an excuse for letting you access help less often than you need it? Clearly you would want to be able to get help whenever you need it.

This is what your pantry should offer its clients.

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