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.

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”

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”

Cornmeal in the parking lot

This story about the importance of individual choice (and the silliness of standardized food bags/boxes) comes to us from the late John Arnold, who at the time was the Executive Director of Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank.

This story involves a pantry in the greater Grand Rapids, Michigan area that grappled with a quandary that I only learned about when they discovered a solution and came into the Food Bank on one of their normal visits.

This pantry had received lots of leftover bags of cornmeal from the community action agency that handled most of the mass distribution of USDA commodities in the area.  Of course the leftovers were available because very few people had wanted any cornmeal in the first place, but the pantry immediately started giving every one of their clients a bag of cornmeal in their standardized food bag.

Unsurprisingly, they started to find bags of cornmeal out in the parking lot.  Clients would come to the pantry, be given a standardized bag, and would get outside and realize there was this silly bag of cornmeal in there and they would abandon it.

So the pantry convened a committee to try to figure out what to do.  Continue reading “Cornmeal in the parking lot”

On Variety: Water Chestnuts

A widespread practice in the charity food system is the preemptive filtering out of products that could potentially be offered to people in need, either for reasons of nutrition, or because we think that the people being served won’t want/need them. When instead we get out of the way and let food, even obscure or unhealthy food, find its way to the right hands, it often solves problems we never even imagined.

This story comes to us from the late John Arnold, who at the time was the Executive Director of Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank.

Before we conducted the Waste Not Want Not research project, most food banks around the country had never challenged the agencies they served to expand the range and variety of products that that they would take and offer to their clients. These food banks were very limited in what product they could take, because it made no sense for them to take product that the agencies they served would not take. So, periodically, the Second Harvest (now Feeding America) national office had to contact food banks like ours, food banks that had been working on trying to expand agency receptivity to new and different products. We would be asked to take loads that many of the food banks wouldn’t even consider taking.

That happened to us one time when the national office had been trying for years to get a particular multi-national producer to donate. When the company finally called with an offer of product, it was unfortunately product that most food banks wouldn’t even consider taking – water chestnuts in gallon size cans. They were in big SeaLand cargo containers, three of them, coming across from China, not labeled yet – they were going to be labeled when they arrived in the U.S. – and the ship had come through a typhoon. Some sea water had gotten in the containers and the cans had rusted. It turned out to be purely cosmetic rust, not deep product-integrity threatening rust. The rust was just something that made cans quite ugly – to the point that the buyer here in the U.S. refused to accept the product.

The company, wanting to cut its losses, offered them into the food banking system, and the national office was not succeeding in finding anyone willing to take them. So they called us and asked us to take one of those loads as a favor to the national program.  Continue reading “On Variety: Water Chestnuts”

I Wonder What Vegetable He Likes?

A critical component in running an effective charitable food distribution program is to provide foods that your clients can and will actually use. This story from John Arnold shows just how small a process change is sometimes needed to achieve this…

This story came from Texas.  I was down there presenting, and I forget now whether it was for the Food Bank in Dallas or Austin, since I’ve done this for both of them.  But I was able to go around and visit some of their agencies.

One of the agencies that we got to was cute, in a funny kind of way.  It was maybe twelve feet by twenty-five feet, maybe not even that long.  We came in the door, and to either side of you there were maybe three or four little guest chairs, and then straight ahead of you was the intake desk, and no wall or anything behind it.  There were shelving units that pointed the length of the room so you could see up and down those aisles between the shelving units with all the food on it.

As we arrived, the elderly woman who was staffing the pantry was doing an intake interview with an elderly gentleman.  When she finished, she said that he qualified to get food, and told him to go have a seat again in one of the guest chairs.  Then she got a box and started walking up and down the shelving units, picking out the food that he was going to be given.

I was absolutely riveted by his face as she went up and down those aisles.  She was probably twelve feet away from him, and he was sitting there in absolute anguish while she mused aloud to herself, “Hm, I wonder what kind of vegetable he likes?  I’ll give him these.” And she’d take a couple of cans and put them in the box.  She did the same with all the other food products.  Obviously it never occurred to her what was happening, and how horrible this experience was for him – how excruciating it was to have someone else picking out his food without him having any voice in the matter whatsoever when he was sitting ten, twelve feet away.

It would have been the easiest thing in the world for her to just look over and say, “What kind of vegetables do you like?” and then give him those, but she never did.

Giant Tubes of Pizza Sauce

A widespread practice in the charity food system is the preemptive filtering out of products that could potentially be offered to people in need, either for reasons of nutrition, or because we think that the people being served won’t want/need them. When instead we get out of the way and let food, even obscure or unhealthy food, find its way to the right hands, it often solves problems we never even imagined.

This story comes to us from the late John Arnold, who at the time was the Executive Director of Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank.

One day, Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank was asked to take one of the 200 tractor-trailer loads of Pizza Hut pizza sauce being distributed through Feeding America. The sauce came in a multiple gallon plastic tube.  Clear, thick, tough plastic.  Definitely a container meant to be put in an institutional dispenser and not in the little 18 oz. jars people are used to having their pizza sauce in. Being food banking’s Mikey food bank – as in “Give it to Mikey, he’ll try anything” – I said that we would take one.

When the pizza sauce arrived, indeed it did look a bit challenging.  But I had developed a list of clients who were willing to let me ask them questions about product.  So I decided that I would make the rounds of seeing them and learn what they thought about it.  I wrote out a little script so that I would be reasonably scientific in this whole deal and would pretty much have every conversation – at least my side of it – go pretty much the same way, so we’d have an ‘apples to apples’ comparison.

I took one of the big sleeves of pizza sauce with me.  I would go up to the door, and I would knock, and the person would come to the door.  I would say “Here, take this,” and then put the thing of sauce in their arms so there was no question about what we were talking about or how it was packaged or anything else because they were holding on to it.  Once they stopped laughing and stopped sort of ooching it with their fingers, I read my first line of the script, which was, “This is pizza sauce, I can get a lot of it, what do you think?”

Eleven out of eleven clients gave some variation on “Oh my goodness, this would be wonderful. I could use this in so many different ways.”  And then they would rattle off the pizza, the lasagna, the spaghetti, the casseroles, the chili, the goulash, soups, stews, all kinds of different ways because indeed it was a tomato sauce sort of thing that presumably could be used in a whole variety of ways.  And they all, every one of them, ticked off a list of ways they would be able to use it.

My next line was one that in a courtroom would have got me gaveled down for leading the witness, but I was concerned that sometimes when people feel like they are not important and they’re dealing with someone who is important, they will be agreeable – because a survival skill they’ve developed is not confronting authority unless they really need to because there’s no gain, and often some pain, that comes from doing that.  So the last thing in the world I would want them to do is tell me that the pizza sauce package was just all hunky-dory and no problem at all when what they were really thinking was, “Oh my gosh, who would ever think that this would be a reasonable thing to do!”

So the second line I read was, “What about the package? That’s got to be a problem.”  I told them that in my opinion the package is a problem.  So if that’s what they’re thinking, I’ve made it very easy for them to just agree with me.  It’s only if they really believe otherwise that they might say anything else.

Ten out of the eleven clients just gave me a quizzical look, and then asked me some variation on the theme of “Have you ever heard of Tupperware? It’s a wonderful tool, these little packages that you can put things in and then freeze them, and take them out when you need them.  And that’s what I’d do with this.”  The eleventh client said, “No, the packaging’s not a problem.  I’d just freeze it the way it is, and then just break off the size chunk I need as I need it.”

So eleven out of eleven clients affirmed – readily affirmed – that they could easily use this product, that they would in fact use it, and that they would use it in a whole variety of ways they already were familiar with, knew about, and knew how to do, and that the packaging was no problem whatsoever.

Then I went around and visited eleven food pantry directors, and never got to my second question because they never stopped sputtering after the first one, just going on and on and on about what an impossible situation our, and their, having this product would be.  That there was no way that clients would ever be able to figure out how to use this product, and oh my goodness, such a huge amount of extra work for the pantry to have to buy jars and make labels and develop sheets of recipes and develop cooking classes, and oh my it’d just be impossible and couldn’t possibly work.

Our food bank requested and received seven trailer loads of that product, and as fast as pantries that were willing to take it and offer it out put it out on their shelves, it flew off those shelves to clients who knew absolutely how to use it.

And with those seven trailers we took more than any other food bank in the nation.