Early in the process that ultimately led to the Waste-Not Want-Not project and the writing of Charity Food Programs That Can End Hunger in America, John Arnold and his staff at Feeding America West Michigan began pondering what they could do differently or more efficiently to distribute enough food via charitable food assistance programs to meet the need for food assistance in their service area. And pretty soon a piece of the answer arrived with an agency representative in a story we’ll call “The Fruit Cocktail and Rice Guy.”
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.
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!
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”
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”