Chapter Ten: Offering Food When Other Help Is Not Available

Anumber of years ago I stopped by a Goodwill Store to see if they happened to have any cheap, used computers I could snap up for a few dollars for my son to take apart and reassemble— that was a hobby of his. They had a couple, but to get at them I had to move about a dozen baby cribs out of the way, which were all for sale for between about $10 and about $35.

The next day I chanced to be walking through our city’s big information and referral service just as one of their staff was taking a call from a woman who needed a crib for her new baby. It stopped me dead in my tracks when I heard the woman being told that “the waiting list for cribs was nine months.” I immediately found myself wondering if there might not be a way that food pantries could help out in such situations.

Offering food frees up other resources

Suppose a family needs something like a crib, but no donated cribs are in the system. Suppose that in such cases such people were referred to a pantry to draw enough food to free up enough of the family’s food money so they could go buy a crib.

How might that work? Suppose the pantry decided to err on the side of generosity, and let the family draw $100 worth of food just to make sure they really did end up with enough freed-up money to get a crib and maybe some sheets and blankets to go with it. If the food has been drawn from the area’s food bank or food rescue organization, the cost to the pantry to provide $100 worth of it would be only about $5, and if someone has donated those funds to the pantry, the after-tax cost of providing that family with the wherewithal to get their baby all set up in a very nice crib that they picked out themselves would be about $3.75.

Which makes more sense, $3.75 or nine months on a waiting list? Since then I have witnessed dozens of situations where someone needed something that wasn’t available where food possibly could have met or could have helped meet the need if the charity service delivery system had had the presence of mind to offer it as a substitute. Probably our greatest success in that regard arose from a series of articles in The Grand Rapids Press about senior citizens in the Grand Rapids, Mich., area who had to choose between getting the medicine they need and getting food to eat. I just hit the roof. That we could and would have such situations going on in as wealthy and wonderful a community as this one is was just absolutely, totally unacceptable.

I started making the rounds demanding a solution, and within a few months the area’s Senior Meals On Wheels Program opened a food pantry specifically for seniors in the area who needed the extra help. We couldn’t give those seniors their medicine, but we certainly could do better than letting them go hungry. In 2003, the Senior Meals On Wheels Program’s Senior Food Pantry helped thousands of area seniors with $284,000 worth of food drawn from the food bank for just $20,776.

What unmet needs are there in your community?

How often are needy families being told that “no help is available” when a much more accurate characterization of the situation would be that the specific thing they have asked for isn’t available, but that significant amounts of food aid are available and could that possibly help meet the need?

Suppose for example, someone’s hours have been cut back at work, and with that reduction in wages they know they won’t be able to pay the rent. So they call and ask for help with the rent. But suppose there isn’t any rent assistance money available right then. Which makes more sense, telling them that no help is available or referring them to a pantry that is willing to begin supplying them with as much of their food as possible in hopes of freeing up enough of their food money to permit their paying the rent?

Like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I have a dream. That dream is that one day we will have enough food pantries in America converted over to The Waste Not Want Not methods to not only end hunger, but continue on, offering food into the breach whenever some family’s need will otherwise remain unmet. I believe that if and when the charity food distribution system reaches its full potential we can not only end hunger, but we can possibly turn the corner on homelessness, utility shut-offs, seniors having to choose between food and medicine, and a host of other problems that people have always thought were too large and expensive for us to deal with.

If we go after them with approaches that are too expensive, then of course we will forever fall short. But if we’ve multiplied our impact and ability by 50 times what it was, then no problem is too big.

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