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””
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”
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.