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”

“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.

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””

You Can’t Survive A Heat Wave With Powdered Milk

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.

In 1995 there was an absolutely killer heat wave that moved into the Midwest. It actually came east from Chicago. While it was in Chicago, somewhere between 600 and 800 people died of heat related conditions or circumstances.

When the heat wave moved on into Michigan, the Public Health people declared a heat emergency, essentially a disaster declaration urging players of all sorts to take extraordinary steps to try to minimize the danger and damage that might occur. In particular they were trying to get people whose utilities had been cut off and/or who didn’t have air conditioning to go to shelters that were air conditioned.

There was tremendous concern about that because the law regarding utility shutoffs is that you can’t shut off people’s utilities during the winter, but you can during the spring and summer. So that’s when many people don’t have utilities and so would not have fans or air conditioners. The Public Health folks were especially concerned about senior citizens, many of whom would not avail themselves of shelter services. Many of them also lived in homes where you either physically couldn’t open the windows or you wouldn’t dare open the windows for fear of burglars or whatever. So there were people just sweltering in these little hot boxes of apartments and homes.

The Food Bank was asked to do what it could, which was to provide beverages in an effort to keep everyone hydrated. So we went through the Second Harvest (now Feeding America) National Office, and because there had been a disaster declaration we were able to access about 18 tractor-trailer loads of beverages of every sort. Bottled iced tea, bottled water, soda pop, sports beverages, fruit juices, pretty much everything you can imagine. For the duration of the heat emergency, we were dispensing that product at absolutely no charge to our agencies so that they could and ideally would hand out that product very freely to people who obviously very badly needed it.

I happened to glance out of my office window into the agency loading area, and I noticed that one of the large pantries from Grand Rapids had finished getting product and was preparing to leave. They still had a considerable amount of room in their vehicle, but absolutely no beverages of any kind in evidence. I went over to their director – the agency’s director himself was there picking up food – and asked in a mystified way, “No beverages?”

Without batting an eye, he said, “We give out powdered milk.”

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.

This food is for the birds!

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.

Occasionally the food bank receives 4 foot by 4 foot by 4 foot tote bins of assorted product from various drug store chains.  They may have closed a store or done a renovation or something, and they’ve pretty much swept the shelves of the product and given it to us.  In the same tote you might have lawn chairs and camera film and sunglasses and lip balm and who knows what else.  So we would go through those totes.  Sometimes we would sort out the product in reasonable ways and group similar items together.  In some other cases we would merely ensure that each and every item was intact and fit for use, fit for its intended purpose.  In those cases we just carefully put it back in another tote filled with an assortment of things.  We might send those out on our mobile pantry trucks, usually just one tote per truck of that sort of thing.

There was an agency one time that was doing a mobile pantry distribution that had one of those.  Two women, who were helping, just happened to be assigned to the tote of miscellaneous drug store stuff, and they told me this story after the incident.  They were getting stuff out of the tote and putting it on the table for clients to be able to get at, when they came across two five pound bags of wild bird seed.

One of them made a joke about it of some sort, visualizing the clients just “peck peck peck” eating the wild bird food, or something, and somehow it hit the other one’s funny bone and they got to laughing.  The more they laughed, the funnier it got – to the point that they were almost rolling on the ground – and then they turned and saw a client, in this case an elderly woman, standing there looking at those bags of birdseed the two volunteers still had in their hands.  Her face conveyed yearning and incredulity, a pleading look.  She explained, “Back when Harry was alive, going out and feeding the wild birds was just one of our pleasures in life.  Since he died, I haven’t been able to do that. Is there any way that I could please have one of those bags of bird seed?”

The two volunteers were immediately totally ashamed of themselves for thinking that this was a silly item that they had come across.  They immediately told her, “Absolutely!”  In fact, she could not only have one bag, she could have both bags, and if she would hold on for a minute they would be more than happy to go through the tote further and see if there might possibly be any more.  And they did, and dug through in a frantic – and as it turns out futile – hope that there might be additional bags of this product that only moments before they had thought was utterly ridiculous.