As the previous Director of a network of food pantries in rural Southern Colorado, I have an interesting frame about conversations regarding hunger and food access. In the past decade, hunger and food literacy has become a commonplace discussion in media. We have celebrity chefs who have always dominated and shaped our view of food like Rachel Ray sharing their spotlight with chef activists like Jamie Oliver, who promotes healthy produce rich diets for children and author, Michael Pollan whose credo rings through many a website “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Food is now trendy to talk about and I love that I have a position during a time where so many resources are available and people are so willing to listen.
In order to get more in depth about hunger and the importance of dignity within food choice, one often needs
a bit of re-frame of what food pantries and food banks look like in modern times. Food Banks, which started in the 1960s as a solution for dealing with excess donations from grocery stores have now grown into a complex part of the social service safety net as part of solution for those in need to access free food. Feeding America is the nation’s largest anti-hunger organization and operates a network of over 200 regional food banks throughout the country. Each regional food bank then partners with local agencies in a variety of capacities to provide food assistance on the ground level. As regional food banks have operational budgets to broker with the food manufacturers and receive items by the semi-load, they can pass on the savings to smaller food pantries as well as work with major farmers/producers for fresh produce. Larger regional food banks can also pick up reclamation food from grocery stores and participate in statewide/national food drive initiatives like Stamp Out Hunger. This set up is certainly efficient – through the Feed America Network, they are able to feed 46.5 million Americans at risk of hunger within a year.
Beyond associations with regional food banks, each smaller food pantry serving a community can tend to act pretty uniquely. For some, that might be just open to public one or two days a week and for others, they are open every day. In terms of food that’s available at a food bank or food pantry, most people have a preconceived idea of what is offered. On the shelves, they imagine canned items, high-sodium soups, Ramen noodles, crackers, and food that is expired. If you walked into the food pantry I used to run, you might see those, but you also might find items that would exist in many pantries of even the biggest "foodies". Since we secured grants for food purchasing to the tune of $50,000 - $60,000 every single year, we had some choices for the food that we could purchase. We made it a priority to procure fruit canned in its own juices, canned black beans with no sodium, diced tomatoes with no salt added and whole grains with brown rice or whole wheat pasta when it financially made sense. Of course, we still accepted donations from community members and grocery stores... Might you find a Ramen Noodle or a Chef Boyardee on our shelves? Yup. Did they go quickly? Of course they did. For every person who told me that they think that food pantries and emergency food systems should carry predominantly fresh produce in order to improve the diets of the “poor people” who go there, I respond back with “Have you ever tried to cook up cabbage or carrots on a hot plate or in a microwave?” Many of our clients lived in places that didn't have shiny magazine-ready kitchens and a bevy of pots and pans at their disposal. If you lived in a camper without electricity or at a motel, you will not likely be making a dinner that could grace the cover of Food and Wine magazine.
Of course, produce and fresh food did have an amazing place at our food pantry. We were blessed to be partners with organizations like Care and Share who brought down approximately 10,000 pounds of produce each month. Regular pick-ups from local grocery stores allowed us to rescue approximately 3,000 pounds of food that might have otherwise gone to waste including meat, dairy, eggs, bread and bakery items and produce.
Even if you never had a chance to come in through our doors, there are two things that I would like for you to think about if you do ever interact with a food pantry or client. You may say, “I don’t know anybody who would need a food pantry” and I would have to say – you’re wrong. A “food bank client” can be the person next to you in the grocery store, somebody from your church or book club, maybe your hairdresser or your waiter at a restaurant. “A person needing a food pantry” could even be your boss or coworker when they were in a different position several years ago or a family member who might feel too proud to talk about their situation.
First, drop all assumptions of what a client at a food pantry may know or may not know about food. Is there a place for nutrition education? Of course there is. One of our best partners was Cooking Matters, a nutrition education program through Share our Strength which provides six week courses focusing on budget friendly meal ideas and meal prep. These classes are important to equip people with tools to make great decisions around food for themselves and their families. However, if somebody came through our doors, we did not assume that they didn't know what to do with gorgeous kale or portobello mushrooms the size of your head. If a client asked, we certainly told them. If we had a lot of a product, we often made samples to demonstrate different ways to prepare items. I heard just as much excitement in our front room at the food bank regarding summer squash and potatoes as I did when I went to our local farmers market. The love of food somebody has doesn’t disappear when they walk through the doors of a local food bank. I can wax poetically about sweet potatoes, radishes, and peppers, and if I needed emergency food, my taste buds would not immediately change to being satisfied by potato flakes. On the flip side, once or twice a week we would have clients in their 60's or 70's read the word, “produce” on our "availability board" and ask us, “what does produce mean?” Just because somebody chooses to pick up canned vegetables over fresh produce available doesn’t mean they are any less civilized or that they should be looked down upon. It could be a preference they grew up with; it could be an easy way to add a vegetable for their kid’s meals; it could be something that they know will last for a while on their shelves – we don’t know and we don’t need to know.
Second, do not vilify foods – especially when you only do it for people who need assistance. We
had bakery items coming in all the time – pies, cakes and cupcakes were often ever-present staples on our shelves. According to Jonathan Bloom in his book American Wasteland, 9% of bread at grocery stores is wasted. While sugar consumption is of importance to many of those who eat the Standard American Diet, restricting cakes and soda seems to only be a conversation when it comes to those who may need assistance, whether at a food pantry or through SNAP (formerly known as food stamps). At our location, we limited the amount of pastries a household could take, but also provided an “as much as you can use” motto for any produce available. We distributed wedding cakes, cookies that ended up as birthday treats and pound cakes that provided sustenance for a tea date for elderly clients. Clients who came in were often in crisis situations or in situations that might not have been ideal. You can’t tell me that if you applied for 15 jobs and hadn’t heard a peep from one, you wouldn’t be soothed momentarily by a piece of cake.
Classism in terms of what food should be available or shouldn’t be available to “poor people” exists nationwide. In 2015, a lawmaker in Missouri pushed for SNAP to remove purchasing for cookies, chips, energy drinks, steak and seafood. Looking past the fact that time and time again, there have been studies that fish and seafood can be an incredibly important part of a nutritious diet and there is a HUGE difference between the prices points of different cuts of steak, there is a math fallacy that this occurs with such frequency for one family. If a family of 3 received the maximum allotment per month of SNAP benefits (literally if they had no income as it is an income-based program and any income means your benefit is smaller, that would amount to $511/month or roughly $1.89/meal assuming each person ate three meals per day. If a person scrimps and saves on their benefits to be able to purchase a nice cut of tenderloin for a single treat for a month such as a birthday or an anniversary dinner, I have NO issue with this.
If you adjust your perception for only those two specific cases, you will find yourself to be more empathetic and a stronger advocate for a food system that benefits everyone. Know that food banks and food pantries are recognizing themselves as part of a bigger solution regarding healthy products, and there has been a significant push to get more produce through the doors of agencies. Know that words and phrases like "sustainability", "food justice" and "community food systems" are becoming commonplace for emergency food providers. In fact, I had the opportunity to attend the inaugural 2013 conference of Closing the Hunger Gap where food banks and emergency food were invited to be a part of the table, and a part of the discussion. If you would like to participate more within local food pantries and food banks by donating products that you love and you would want to see on the shelves of grocery stores, visit www.foodpantries.org for a comprehensive listing of local food pantries.