Chapter 5 – Distribution Models

While there are almost as many ways to distribute food as there are food pantries, nearly all of them are based on one of these two models:

The Standardized Food Box/Bag Pantry

As the name suggests, a standardized food box/bag pantry prepares standardized packages of food to give to clients. The main strengths of this model are its fairness, as every client receives more or less the same thing, and the pantry’s ability to control the nutritional balance of the food package a client receives.

Unfortunately, clients and their families aren’t standardized. Giving out a jar of peanut butter to go with a loaf of bread makes sense… unless the family in question contains someone with peanut allergies. Giving a family a can of pork-and-beans makes sense… unless they happen to be vegetarians or believe in a religious prohibition against eating pork. Between food allergies, religious and other dietary restrictions, special needs (as a result of diabetes, etc.), and certain people (young children particularly) loathing certain foods, as much as half the food distributed by a standardized food box/bag pantry may go to waste, effectively doubling how much food must be acquired and distributed to meet the need. That is not an efficient use of resources.

Standardized food box/bag pantries are also generally ill-suited to using Food Banks. The problem is that while Food Bank inventories are diverse, they are also constantly changing, and most standardized food box/bag pantries try to offer fairly static menus. Compensating for this incompatibility generally requires purchasing food, running food drives, and limiting how often clients can seek help – all solutions that tend to make pantries less effective than they would be otherwise.

Finally, being told what to eat is anything but an uplifting experience – most clients have been picking out their own food for years, and not being able to do so is just one more unplesantry added to their already unhappy situation.

In light of these problems, it is not surprising that standardized food box/bag pantries across the country are increasingly adopting elements of the other major model, the client-choice pantry.

The Client Choice Pantry

This model is built on the idea of allowing clients to choose their own food. Many client choice pantries resemble small grocery stores, with products arrayed on shelves and in coolers/freezers, from which clients can fill boxes or bags. Others produce a list of the food they have available, and then prepare individual packages based on clients’ selections. Client choice pantries tend to be very space-flexible, some have been successfully run out of closets, and still others thrive without using a building at all. (See Appendix 2 to find out how!).

Client choice food pantries are strong where standardized food box/bag pantries are weak. Choosing their own food gives clients a sense of control rather than the helplessness of being told, in essence, that “this is what you get”; and since clients tend not to take food they won’t use, relatively little of a what a client-choice food pantry distributes goes to waste.

The diverse and shifting inventories of Food Banks are well suited to providing client choice food pantries with a wide array of products to offer their clients. Client choice pantries generally only need to acquire non-Food Bank food to accommodate people with special needs, like very young children or the diabetic, and are otherwise entirely stocked by simply taking some of everything their local Food Bank has.

All told, a client choice pantry can generally offer the needy in its community many times more help than a standardized food box/bag pantry with the same resources.


The decision between client choice and standardized food box/bag is not all or nothing. Some organizations choose to operate on a hybrid model such as having clients select items based on some sort of framework (generally based on the food pyramid), or offering clients a “choice” section from which to pick food to supplement their standardized packages. While such hybrids may face their own unique challenges, they nevertheless tend to produce significant improvements in performance compared to the standardized food box/bag model alone.

For more on the topic of nutrition, please see Appendix 1.

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