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.