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”

Bible Study in Charlotte, North Carolina

In 1998 or 1999, John Arnold was invited by the Food Bank in Charlotte, North Carolina to fly down and do a presentation on the Waste Not Want Not research and approach as the keynote address of their annual agency relations conference. The director of that Food Bank seemed concerned that an inappropriate word might slip out of John’s ex-Marine mouth, so she warned him to keep the presentation appropriate for the audience: most of the 400 or so attendees were from churches, specifically Southern Baptist churches. The composition of that audience proved to be the most important factor in their understanding of the message that we should distribute as much food aid as needed, whenever it’s needed.

The Food Bank had flown me down because they were very frustrated. Their distribution had see-sawed between five and six million pounds a year for seven years, when both the supply of food available to them and the need in the area they serve were considerably greater than that, so they really needed agencies to change.

I paid attention to the body language of my audience as I did my presentation, and as the conclusion neared, it seemed to me that I had not made too many converts. People had listened quite respectfully, they had chuckled at the appropriate places in my presentation and occasionally had nodded or gave other reasonably positive reactions, but it didn’t seem like we had gotten them to the point that very much was going to change as a result of this effort.

As I wrapped up the last little bit of the formal normal presentation, I decided to try something new. I said, “Ok folks, we’ll be wrapping up here in just a couple of minutes, probably in a slightly different way than you are used to having keynote addresses end. We’re going to have a quiz!” Then I laughed and said, “I hope you’ve all been paying attention.”

Continue reading “Bible Study in Charlotte, North Carolina”

On Nutrition: Godiva Chocolates

With all the talk about nutrition that goes on these days, it is important to remind ourselves from time to time that food is more than just fuel for the body – it also plays a social and emotional role in life, the importance and value of which cannot be overstressed. This story comes to us from John Arnold, then the executive director of Feeding America West Michigan.

When the Feeding America way of allocating out food to its member food banks went entirely online, with the twice a day auction where food banks like ours bid credits that we have been assigned based on the poverty population of our service area, I was originally the person who did the bidding at our food bank.  That lasted until a most unfortunate incident involving 5 trailer loads of wintergreen breath mints, but we won’t talk about that situation right now.  In any case, while I was still doing our food bank’s bidding, I went onto the system one morning and saw that there were three trailer loads of Godiva chocolates available from out in Pennsylvania someplace.  I was interested, but I checked on our inventory and found that we already had quite a bit of chocolate candy and so did not really need any of those three loads, but I felt a little bad about not bidding on them because Godiva chocolates certainly are among the best in the world. Continue reading “On Nutrition: Godiva Chocolates”

When a pantry existing isn’t enough

As the Waste Not Want Not Project research began picking up steam, it quickly zeroed in on the fact that there weren’t enough food pantries in operation to handle the volume of food that needs to be distributed in order to meet the need, and then immediately identified an array of closely-related issues: visibility, accessibility, hours, etc., all of which persist today. These stories are a reminder of why addressing those issues is a critical part of ending hunger.

A Critical Lack of Information

A Hispanic family moved to Grand Rapids from Chicago to get away from the gangs, crime, etc., so they could raise their children in a safe and supportive environment.  Unfortunately the father’s efforts to secure employment were not successful, and within some weeks they were in serious financial trouble.  Eventually when the children began crying with hunger, the father took one of the childrens’ toy guns and broke the little pink “this isn’t a real gun” marker off it, and tried to rob a bank.  He got caught of course, and because of mandatory sentencing rules he was sentenced to a decade in prison.  They lived only a block or two from a food pantry that would have served them, but they didn’t know about it… Continue reading “When a pantry existing isn’t enough”

“Clients Don’t Want Fruits and Vegetables”

As food pantry organizers, volunteers, and staff members, one of the most important things we can do is to be open to new and better approaches to helping the people we serve. This story comes to us from John Arnold, from the early days of the Waste-Not Want-Not research that ultimately culminated in the publication of Charity Food Programs That Can End Hunger in America.

One time the Waste Not Want Not researchers were calling on a pantry on the north side of Grand Rapids that they had heard was giving out totally inadequate amounts of food to people it served.  They went and met with the director, who upon hearing the concern that she wasn’t giving out more food affirmed that the reason that was the case was that she and her pantry simply couldn’t afford to give out larger quantities, that they could barely keep up with what they were doing as it is.

In the midst of all this, our researchers, looking at the food she had on her shelves, realized that the majority of it appeared to have been purchased at stores, wholesale or retail.  Everything in sight was canned, packaged, shelf-stable: canned fruits, and canned vegetables, canned this and canned that.  Shelf-stable but also very expensive and not making use of the Food Bank.  In particular, not making use of the quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables that we were dispensing to agencies for a handling fee of only three cents per pound.  So they suggested that she try a strategy which ultimately ended up being one of the key practices recommended by their research in Charity Food Programs That Can End Hunger in America: to stretch the pantry’s money and simultaneously increase the amount of food being given out by making use of the fresh fruits and vegetables available from the Food Bank.

Continue reading ““Clients Don’t Want Fruits and Vegetables””

The Starving Diabetic

Rules and policies are an important part of making it so a food pantry can operate effectively at scale – but if we get too attached to a given way of doing things, some of the people who need our help the most can fall through the cracks. This story comes to us from John Arnold, who was at the time the executive director of Feeding America West Michigan.

Our Food Bank has a small staff and back in 1993 it was even smaller. As a result, sometimes there was no one available to answer the phone when it rang, so pretty much any of us in the office area who heard a phone continue ringing to the third or fourth ring were apt to answer it.

I did that one Friday morning and found myself dealing with a man who sounded to be about my same age, who reported that he had been laid off from his job at one of our big local companies – a company whose employees believed their jobs would be secure forever. He had pretty much spent all his money and as such he now had no money, had no food, and in fact had not eaten in several days. He was justifiably apprehensive that he might be dying over the weekend as a result of not having food because he was severely diabetic.

He was extremely upset, extremely frustrated and frightened by his situation and was crying as he told me all of this. I tried to reassure him as much as I possibly could that he absolutely would be receiving food assistance yet that day, but I explained that we don’t normally receive these kind of calls and so it was going to take me a couple of minutes to figure out a game plan for getting him that food. So, I again asked him to try to calm down as much as he could and be reassured that he would be getting some food aid, and would he give me his address so that I could figure out what pantry or pantries he might be near.

He did, and I was able to track down that he lived only several blocks from one of the large pantries here in Grand Rapids that people are referred to when they call the United Way’s information and referral service. It just so happened I had an updated sheet on what days and hours those pantries were open, and I saw that that one was open on Fridays. That was a pretty amazing set of happy coincidences, that he was near one of those big pantries and that it was open that day. I went back on the line with the caller and told him about the pantry and that he should get over there and explain his situation, and that they would undoubtedly supply him with food.

I didn’t think there would be a problem, but just in case, I asked him if he did run into any trouble to please call me back, and I’ll be darned if about thirty minutes later he didn’t do exactly that. This time he was even more upset than before. He was so upset in fact that he could not explain why the pantry had refused to serve him. All I was able to get from him was that indeed he had gone to the pantry I had directed him to, he had asked for help, and he had been refused help.

That made me pretty upset too, and I promised him that within the hour he would have food delivered to him if I had to bring it to him myself. I was fully prepared to do that if it turned out to be necessary, but before I went out and loaded my car full of food, I asked him to let me put him on hold for a moment so that I could call that pantry and find out why they had refused to serve him. With my reassurance that he would be getting food, even if I had to bring it to him myself, he was OK with that. So I put him on hold and I called that pantry, which is one of the better known and better respected of the food pantries in Grand Rapids, and I asked them, “Why did you refuse to serve this gentleman that I referred to you?”

Without batting an eye, they explained to me, “On Friday we serve repeat users. We do all of our new client intakes on Tuesdays.”

Appalled, I demanded that they immediately drop whatever they were doing and assemble a wonderful array of food and deliver it to that man’s house. Although they had apparently not understood the seriousness of that client’s need for food, they did apparently understand what the consequences were going to be if they did not do as I asked them to. So they did deliver food to this gentleman, and began serving him as they ought to have in the first place.

There Is No Such Thing As A Good Standardized Food Box List

This story comes to us from the early days of the Waste-Not Want-Not research that ultimately culminated in the publication of Charity Food Programs That Can End Hunger in America.

Early on in the Waste Not Want Not research, the researchers identified a problem: the standardized food box list that most agencies were using. In their conversations with clients, they found that clients were being given a lot of products they could not use and would not use. In looking at what products were being given out, the researchers realized – it was clearly evident – why much of the product was not being used. A lot of the products looked responsible and nutritious and all of those sorts of things, but it was generally a lot of products that real people in the real world almost never use. A typical list would include powdered milk and dried beans and dried rice and dried noodles and a can of tuna fish. It was what we came to call the bomb shelter food, in that it is responsible, nutritious food that does store well and is fairly cheap, but it isn’t what anyone actually ever eats.

We realized that we needed to replace those lists, and at that early stage of our research we supposed that the logical solution was to replace those lists with a list that was more reflective of what clients actually wanted and would use. Continue reading “There Is No Such Thing As A Good Standardized Food Box List”