On Choice: The Cranberries and Pudding Story, Part 2

This is a continuation of the cranberries story we started a week ago.

I told the cranberry story as part of my presentation up at the Food Bank of Alaska as part of their agency conference.  I told the story as an example of why it’s kind of interesting and fun to get out of the way and let forces that we don’t control play a role in designing what happens.

At the end of my presentation, a young man came up, identified himself as the manager of a large pantry at a big multi-service agency up there in Anchorage.  He said, “Oh my goodness, I’ve never thought about these issues this way. You’ve completely changed my thinking about how a food pantry should run.  I am totally committed to changing my pantry from doing everything wrong to doing everything right.  I hope to get that done as quickly as possible, but it’ll take a little while to work through the politics of the organization because it would represent quite a change for them.”

He knew, though, that he could immediately make one of the interim changes that I had commended as a possibility.  While they continued giving out their standardized bags, he would come to the Food Bank, get a big selection of things that they did not include in their standardized bag, and put them out on what he was going to call the “Odds and Ends” table.  After people had been given their standardized bag of food, they would be invited to go over and pick out an item per family member.

I must not have given the impression of being sufficiently impressed at that point, because he persisted, saying that he would even be taking and offering out various types of pudding.  He explained that at some earlier point in his life he had been hospitalized with some ailment for an extended period of time – certainly weeks, if not months – and the only thing they had let him have to eat was pudding, to the point that the very thought of pudding was enough to make him run from the room screaming.  He pointed out to me that, you never know, it might be like those cranberries, there could be somebody that needs pudding.

Continue reading “On Choice: The Cranberries and Pudding Story, Part 2”

On Choice: The Cranberries and Pudding Story, Part 1

This story of client choice comes to us from John Arnold, then the executive director of Feeding America West Michigan.

Fairly often, farmers and private individuals or even companies will give the Food Bank small quantities of kind of unusual products.  With those donations, rather than logging them into the computer and trying to order them out in a computerized system, we just put them out in an area we call our shopping area.  Agencies are able to get a shopping cart and walk around in that area and see if there’s anything they would like to take.  We roll the cart onto a floor scale and subtract the weight of the cart, and then the agency pays us our handling fee based on the weight of the product they’ve taken.

Well, out in the shopping area, we experienced the beginning of a sequence of events that if not outright miracles are at least pretty darn close, close enough for our purposes.  It all began one day when a farmer dropped off a couple of bushels of whole fresh raw cranberries to us.  Continue reading “On Choice: The Cranberries and Pudding Story, Part 1”

Three Strikes and You’re Out

In Bible Study in Charlotte, North Carolina, we showed how religious teachings align with Waste Not Want Not recommendations. Today, this anecdote from John Arnold, then the executive director of Feeding America West Michigan, will emphasize what happens when “filling the cup to overflowing” falls by the wayside, and people are not provided with as much help as they need.

Not all Food Bank stories have happy endings.  The Waste Not Want Not research that we did indicated that the issues we had identified as barriers in the charity food system were incredibly important, but only occasionally were we confronted with how starkly awful that reality was.

I had such an experience when I answered the phone there at the Food Bank one day and had a weeping disabled widow explain to me that she had just been to her area’s food pantry for the third time in that calendar year, and had been told by that pantry that their rule was that people could get food assistance only three times in a calendar year so as to keep those clients from becoming dependant on the pantry.

Through her sobs, she explained that she had gone to the pantry those three times because with the high winter utility bills she was having to pay, there was no money left for any food.  She was calling me with this report on February 27th.  If that food pantry really did stick to its rule, she was going to be unable to get any additional food for ten more months.

All I could do was advise her to go back to that pantry and explain to them exactly what she had explained to me in hopes that they would do the right thing and serve her.

The 90 Second Miracle, or: The difference not buying food makes

Today’s story of “The 90 Second Miracle” comes to us from John Arnold, then the executive director of Feeding America West Michigan. It illustrates the impact that a food pantry switching to use donated food (via the food banking system) rather than relying on retail purchasing can have.

One time I presented on the Waste-Not Want-Not recommendations at a conference at a Second Harvest national conference in Chicago.  At the end of my presentation, a woman came up and identified herself as the director of – I believe she said – the largest food pantry in New York City.

She was shaking her head in incredulity and said, “Oh my goodness, I have never thought of these issues in the way you’ve described them.  My pantry has been doing everything wrong, and I am committed to switching it completely over to the methods that you recommend.”

“But,” she said, “you’re going to have to help me out a little bit. My church already supports our pantry very generously; I just don’t think I can go back and get a lot more money from them… and I’m concerned that if instead of only letting people get food once a month, and making them prove themselves worthy and then giving them a three day box…” Continue reading “The 90 Second Miracle, or: The difference not buying food makes”

“To Hell With Nutrition!”

This vignette comes to us from John Arnold and the Waste Not Want Not research that Feeding America West Michigan did with Michigan State University Extension in the 1990s. That many different aspects of peoples’ lives can shape what foods will be most beneficial for them is a lesson that many nutrition-focused food pantries urgently need to learn today.

Possibly the most interesting and unanticipated occurrence during the Waste Not Want Not Project began innocently enough without even involving us.  A caseworker for the Department of Public Health was doing home visits with households that received WIC assistance.  At a household that she called on, she found the children home alone with the five year old at the stove with a burner turned on and a small pile of dried beans in the dry pan which she was rolling back and forth with a spoon in hopes of making them somehow edible because she and the two year old that she was caring for were hungry and there was nothing else in the house for them to eat.  The children had no idea who their father even was, and they weren’t sure where their mother was or how long she had been gone or when she might return.  Apparently she did return soon enough afterwards that the children were not removed by Protective Services, but the WIC caseworker did promptly come to the Food Bank and, in partnership with one of our agencies, drew a large amount of food which she delivered back to that household.

Then or shortly thereafter, the WIC caseworker determined that the household’s primary source of supplemental food was a food pantry that only would give them a once a month standardized box of products like dried beans.  She was aware of the Waste Not Want Not Project which was then in progress, and spoke with our researchers about the situation.  Together they decided that this might be a teachable moment for that food pantry, showing them that their method of giving out food wasn’t meeting this family’s need and potentially other families’ needs.

Continue reading ““To Hell With Nutrition!””

When a “Cheater” Gets Caught

This shocking story of the true cost of efforts to “protect” the charitable food system from people who need more help than they are offered comes to us from John Arnold, then the Executive Director of Feeding America West Michigan.

One day I saw one of the Food Bank’s board members talking to somebody when I was driving downtown in Grand Rapids’ “Bowery” area.  It was always fun to talk with that board member, so I found a parking spot and went over to see what was going on.  As I approached, the woman he was talking with had her back to me, and he saw me coming and got his little grin on his face.  As I neared them, he kind of wrapped his arm around her and turned her a little so that she could see me coming, but his arm was there so that she also couldn’t escape.

When I got up to them he said to her, “Here’s somebody that I know would really like to meet you and talk with you because he supplies food to those food pantries that you used to scam food from to buy coke back when you were addicted.”  She just blanched and turned beet red.

I just had to laugh and I said to her, “I am so sorry, I tried to bring him up right, but there was only so much I could do, he just turned out the way he is,” to try to take the embarrassment out of it for her.  “Plus,” I said, “I noticed that in his introduction of you that everything was in past tense, as in things that were, that no longer are.”  And she said yeah, that was right, that she had actually been clean and off drugs for a couple of years and had her kids back again and was doing ok now.

I said, “It’s really none of my business and I don’t mean to pry, but boy if I could ask you a couple of questions it would really help me understand some things that I need to understand and haven’t been able to get answers to.”  She replied, “OK, I guess. I’d be glad to help if I can.”

So I asked, “This deal of getting food from pantries, and then selling it and buying drugs… how does that even work?  I’ve lived in New York City, I’ve lived in Los Angeles and Chicago, St. Louis, and now here in Grand Rapids, and I have never had anyone approach me out on the street with a bunch of extra pockets sewn into the inside lining of their coat and kind of flip it open and say ‘Hey, would you like to buy some tuna fish?’ or ‘I’m running a special on cornmeal today.’  How does this selling food pantry food work?”

She looked a little thoughtful and then she said that actually, when she went to a pantry, she would pretty much bring home whatever they gave her. She had some kids, and they would go through it and they would sort out any of it they could use and they tended to eat that.  Then, for the stuff that they couldn’t use, there were other drug users, obviously, that she was in fairly close and regular contact with; there was kind of a quid pro quo of ‘If you’ve got some drugs and I need some and I don’t have any, maybe you’d help me out, and here I’ve got some food, and maybe you don’t have any and maybe I could help you out.’  So there was some sharing of the food with other at-risk people.

I said: “But you didn’t actually go anywhere and sell it?”  She said: “Well no, there’s no place.  Where would you sell it?”  I said: “And your drug dealer wouldn’t take it as payment for drugs?”

She laughed at the very suggestion, and said, “I don’t think so, ‘cause he’s gotta pay his supplier and I guarantee you he doesn’t want a bag of cornmeal!”

What came out of that conversation was a realization that this myth of food being sold and people buying drugs just truly really does not happen in the real world because it cannot happen. There is no secondary market for random bits of food, and no drug dealer is going to take a bag of food in exchange for the drug.  In fact her use of the food ultimately put it in the hands of her own household or into the hands of other at risk people, so ultimately it went to where it was supposed to, with her passing it on.

My next question was about scamming pantries and getting food from more than one of them.  She said that she had gotten some fake IDs and was drawing food from multiple pantries because there only was a certain amount that she could use from each of the pantries she visited and even if she had been able to use it all, it was never enough.

So she had gotten some fake IDs and did use multiple pantries a month.  Had she ever gotten caught?  Yes, eventually she did.  What happened afterwards was that the pantries cut her off.  A lot of the pantries share information back and forth, and, she said, “They put out the word on me and nobody would ever serve me again.”

I asked, “What did you do then?”  At that point I didn’t even begin to imagine what the answer would be.  The answer was that she turned tricks, she became a prostitute.  In Grand Rapids, Michigan in the late 1990s this woman had been rejected, had been abandoned by the faith community, and had essentially been thrown to the wolves in order to protect food from people like her.  So she had worked as a prostitute in the years that Grand Rapids had a serial killer who ultimately killed – I believe – 11 women who were believed to be engaged in prostitution.

What that added up to was that during the time that she was able to get food from pantries, there was a fairly good chance that what we were doing was saving her life.  We were keeping her off the streets and away from that killer, not to mention AIDS and the other things that can come from prostitution even on its best days.  When “the system worked” and a cheater was caught and punished by being cut off, the system, the church tossed this person to the gutter.

The more things change…

This story came to us from Carolyn Russell of the Connecticut Food Bank. Occurring almost a decade after The Overflowing Storeroom, it is a valuable reminder that a great deal of needless waste happens due to confusion caused by the dates on food products, and also that bringing positive change to the charitable food system is often an ongoing and gradual process.

About 2 years ago I went to visit one of our larger, and presumably higher functioning pantry partners, to discuss an opportunity for them to pick up donations from a national high-end grocery store. When I arrived at the pantry, which identified themselves as a client choice pantry, I was surprised to see that almost all the product on their shelves was a house brand for a regional grocery chain. When I inquired about it the pantry director told me that since the food bank generally had very little food to offer, they purchased most of the food they distributed.

Being in procurement, I knew that back at the food bank, we had a large variety of food to offer, so I pressed the pantry director about what she meant by “very little food to offer”. She went on to explain that they had a list of items that they provided and since they could not get a large enough quantity of these items from the food bank to provide to all of their clients, they had to purchase them. She continued on to explain that in addition to not having enough of the “right” items, often the food they got at the food bank was close to or past the best by date, so they usually couldn’t distribute it anyway. She went on to explain that they had similar issues with food drive items, which it seemed she was sure were items that people found in the dark recesses of their cabinet at home and decided to donate rather than discard.

I suggested that they could take some of the random items they received from the food bank or from food drives and put them on a “grab bag” table and let clients take what they needed or wanted, at this point she showed me a small shelf stuck in a corner near their reach in cooler with about two dozen odd items on it, and a sign that said “expired items, consume at your own risk”. Needless to say, not many of the clients that I saw getting food that day took any of these random items.

I started to explain that the majority of foods, especially shelf stable foods, are perfectly safe to consume for some time after the code date, and was quickly cut off and told that they have heard this, and had even received some information from the food bank in the past regarding extensions, but they didn’t believe that the food was really safe and wanted to make sure that their clients knew that they should be wary of consuming anything past the date on the item. I offered to send the information again, and come back at a later date to discuss code dates and what they all mean with their staff and volunteers. My offer was politely declined, so I thanked the director for her time, and for the tour of their facility and went on my way.

It’s amazing that even with the changes in the food banking industry, many of the barriers to getting food to people are still largely the same as they were two decades ago.

A response to “Why Can’t America Solve the Hunger Problem?”

The below was written in response to an interview of author Andy Fisher by Steve Holt for Citylab, which can be found here.

Like Janet Poppendieck in Sweet Charity, Andy Fisher raises some good points, but mistakes common poor practices within the charitable food system (over reliance on food drives, providing a 3-day standardized box of food once a month, insufficient attention paid to the dignity of people seeking help, etc.) for justification of a broad indictment of the system itself.

Over 50% of the households in this country are not well positioned to cope with unexpected expenses, and even more are only a missed paycheck or two away from a real financial crisis. The charitable food system, run properly, is an outstanding means of providing families that run into bumps on the road of life (unexpected car repairs, medical expenses, etc.) with an emergency injection of resources that can help prevent a temporary situation from turning into a financial death spiral, thus speeding a return to self sufficiency. (In such situations, it is more of a trampoline than a safety net!)

Even when providing long-term assistance, the charitable food system (again, run properly) produces a multiplier effect in terms of community impact per dollar that most other programs can only dream about. Including the operating expenses of our regional Feeding America food bank, the organization I run provides more than $5 of food assistance to people in need for every $1 of community resources spent in the process. In comparison to that 5:1 ratio, even the best cash or cash-equivalent programs like SNAP operate at less than 1:1 due to administrative costs.

I also strongly object to the idea that the charitable food system (or SNAP) should be in the business of paternalistically deciding what foods are “acceptable”. We should certainly encourage and empower people to make healthy choices – and indeed over 2/3 of the food my organization handles is fresh produce – but to claim that we shouldn’t also offer people in need the opportunity to have things like birthday cakes is to deny the emotional, social, and cultural role that food plays in all of our lives, and is fundamentally hostile to the basic human dignity about which Mr. Fisher professes to be so concerned. (More on that subject here.)

Hunger is a foundational problem. If we want the economically struggling people in this country to be active in bringing about long-term positive change at any level (personal, community, national), we must do more to address hunger in the near term, not less. As a wise man once said: “A person who knows where their next meal is coming from can have many problems, a person who does not has only one.”

Anyone interested in learning more about how the charitable food system can (and should) work to adequately address the acute problem of hunger in America, and thereby create space in which long-term solutions can plausibly be enacted, can learn more here.

Why don’t clients protest?

In 1995, six months into the formal Waste Not Want Not research, the two lead researchers came to John to deliver some rather disquieting news: they had been talking with many clients – hundreds – about the experience of accessing food assistance from food pantries, and they had not found a single client who was able to describe their food pantry experience in positive terms. John was appalled, so he set out to see if he could find one by inviting a group of clients to discuss their experiences in seeking and receiving food aid from pantries.

In the conversation of this group of African-American women, it had come up that they generally did feel disrespected and distrusted in the intake process or eligibility screening they had gone through. They were frustrated about being able to get food only once a month and they were mystified that often the amount of food they needed was never even asked about. It was as though that issue didn’t even matter. And then they were handed an arbitrary selection of food, again totally without regard to their realities or needs or abilities. The net result was that they were very inadequately provided with help in a very humiliating, frustrating way.

Eventually I got too perplexed: How could people continue coming in and going through the process and getting food and thanking the pantry and leaving – and never indicate to the pantry that the system wasn’t working well? It was conceivable that a pantry could be genuinely clueless, that the system they were using wasn’t working well from the client’s perspective.

So I challenged to this group of women, “Have you ever expressed your concern or dismay or displeasure to the pantry? Have you ever told them? Because if you haven’t told them that the system they’re using is a bad one in need of correction, they’re just going to go on using it forever.”

Continue reading “Why don’t clients protest?”

On Choice: The Overflowing Storeroom

Changing long-set patterns of behavior and thought can be very difficult – as shown by this this John Arnold story from a visit to a Texas food pantry.

When we arrived at the pantry, I was introduced by the person from the Food Bank who was taking me around visiting agencies as this wonderful out of town expert on the subject of how food pantries should operate. It was a little embarrassing. But the pantry volunteers were just delighted that I had come because they were grappling with a seemingly insoluble problem and were just at their wits end, not knowing what to do. They were hoping that maybe I would be able to figure out a solution for them. I said, “Well, I’d certainly be willing to take a look at this situation, and be willing to contribute whatever I could in the way of a recommendation or solution.”

So they took me back into their food storage area, where they had their food up on the sort of screw-together metal shelving you could buy at K-Mart. They explained that their pantry gave out a standardized food bag, and despite their best efforts to get people to donate only what was on the list of what they put in their standardized bag, people continued to give them things that weren’t on the list. Those “extra” items had accumulated on their shelves and were now filling the storage area to the point that they were running out of room, and they just didn’t know what to do about that situation!

Continue reading “On Choice: The Overflowing Storeroom”