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.