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?”

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.

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”

Following a Client “To See What Really Happens to the Food”

This is a story that was told to John Arnold by a food pantry director.  This pantry director had become convinced that client choice and the other Waste Not Want Not methods were the right way to go, and had the authority to force the implementation of those practices in the pantry that he ran, but he was not able to really convince some of his volunteers, who remained pretty openly skeptical about how this was all going to work.  Interestingly, their own skepticism led them to discover the trustworthiness of the clients they were so anxious about.

Just a few days into using the new system, the volunteers noticed a particular client who was radiating a certain amount of guilt in his body language and was clearly taking an unusually large amount of food. By the time the pantry director became aware of the situation, they were actually congratulating one another on having their suspicions confirmed that you really could not trust the kind of people who came to food pantries to get food.

The pantry director found their attitude and behavior to be inappropriate and upsetting, occurring as it was in a church; but he himself was a little shaken by the episode and allowed himself to be coaxed out the door with the most antagonistic volunteers so that they could get into a car and follow this particular client to see what happened – what really happened – when you let people take as much food as they want. They surreptitiously followed the client’s car until he pulled into a driveway. Continue reading “Following a Client “To See What Really Happens to the Food””

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.