Tuesday, December 20, 2016

An Open Letter: Dear Friendly Neighborhood Food Pantry Operator...

Dear Friendly Neighborhood Food Pantry Operator:

I'm writing this letter to discuss some trends that I've noticed lately, as I line up for the latest prepackaged box, bag or basket I'm counting on to fill up the (ever-increasing) cracks in my food budget.

Don't take whatever I say personally, or as a slight on the church or community group that you represent. Many of you who volunteer at such places are committed to helping out their needy neighbors, when it'd be a lot easier to stay home, or volunteer for a different cause. I've talked with enough of you firsthand to know.

However, like any good citizen I want to raise some issues that I'd to like see corrected. There are always better ways of doing things. Some are more practical than others: that goes without saying. But any organization -- be it a food pantry, football team, or first-class airline -- can learn from what its customers on the ground say. So please take my comments in that spirit, no more, no less:

1. Avoid stacking the deck with carbohydrates and sugar-heavy items. Lately, I've been seeing a preponderance of both categories, to the detriment of others -- like fruits and vegetables. Yes, I know, food's expensive -- that's why I line up for these boxes.

However, filling your shelves with the cheapest, nastiest stuff on sale -- lately, I've seen everything from Pop Tarts, to Oreo cookies, Ramen noodles, and the statutory boxes of macaroni and cheese that, apparently, are included by decree in every pantry kitchen -- isn't nutritionally satisfying.

Believe it or not, not every poor person automatically wants to eat Ramen noodles or Oreo cookies. Some of us care what we put in our colons, stereotypes be damned, and it would be nice to see you recognize this situation.

2. Consider allergies and diet issues.  Yes, I know: you can't cater to every imaginable taste on the planet. I get that. But it's worth remembering that some people have allergies or conditions that make some of your selections questionable, at best.

For example, my partner, The Squawker, has major allergies to fish and potatoes -- so what am I seeing lately? Enough cans of tuna to start a fish ladder, and box upon box of cut-price mashed potatoes to line the walls....which, as we say in England, is "f#ck all useless," and ends up a) tossed out, or b) given to someone who can eat them.

What's more, Squawker also happens to be a type II diabetic, which further narrows our options -- and why point #1 is so important. Controlling blood sugar, which is so vital to a diabetic's healthy existence, is less likely to happen regularly if half your basket includes a preponderance of food items that will jack it up. Just a thought.

3. Do a better quality control job. Be brutally honest about each donated item that comes in: "Would I really eat this myself, if I had no other choice?" The answer might surprise you. Case in point: last month, I reluctantly accepted a bag of potatoes, on the theory that I could either a) make French Fries out of them, instead of buying them, or b) recreate my dad's famed potato pancake recipes.

Guess what? I ended up pitching the bag, because its potatoes were in an advanced state of decay, according to Squawker's oh-so-keen foodie eyes. Poor people feel crappy and miserable enough without being stuck with the additional task of weeding out food items that will never grace anybody else's refrigerator, nor kitchen table.

4. Ensure, as best as you can, that whatever items you've chosen help recipients plan complete meals. This point seems obvious, but you'd be surprised how many food banks and/or pantries that I've visited miss it. How can you tell? The closer you get to the four basic food groups -- bread and cereal, meats, milk, vegetables -- the more likely that you've got the big picture right. In other words, I shouldn't feel that you threw a dart at the grocery shelves, crossed your fingers, and hoped for the best.

5. Give recipients a decent, comfortable area to line up or wait for their items. One local church pantry that I visit semi-regularly stands out as a beacon of what not to do in this department. Their system requires you to sign up at 1 p.m., and line up for the food truck's arrival at 4 p.m.

This activity doesn't occur at the church itself, but its activities center on (you guessed it) Main Street. However, nobody is allowed inside the building for the 1 p.m. signup, which forces recipients to stand outside, no matter how poor the weather. I should know, having waited in 85-plus-degree heat during the summer, and single-digit chills during winter -- while the center's octagonal main room, famously designed by Frank LLoyd Wright, often sits unused and empty.

Again, poor people feel stigmatized and harshly judged as it is, without being forced to tolerate conditions that would sorely test the patience of a saint. Enough said on that one.

6. Strive to include harder to come by foods, like meats, in your baskets and boxes. For a long time, the above-mentioned church pantry provided my sole yardstick in terms of what to expect -- and I've only seen meats passed out there on occasion. Until I began visiting a local food co-op -- and a food pantry run by another, smaller local church -- I had no idea that any different options existed.

Yes, I know, meat is expensive, and not getting any cheaper -- all the more reason, in my humble opinion, to start showing a little creativity to fund it. For example, could you look at sharing costs with another church, or nonprofit agency? Could you plan a benefit gig to offset your expenses? Does your agency run a gofoundme page, where people can just donate directly? Considering how Donald Trump's regime is likely to act towards those on the bottom, a little creativity will surely go an incredibly long way.

7. Tame overzealous volunteers. As I've mentioned earlier, many of you who man the food bank/pantry distribution lines go above or beyond the call of duty -- sometimes, to your everlasting detriment. One example comes to mind from the church pantry cited in #5, which only allows six people at a time to enter its activity center's main room, where the 1 p.m. signup takes place.

Last summer, though, I ran afoul of the volunteer guarding the double dears on the center's street-ward side. Sometimes, he ushered in six people at once, but other times, an extra person or two somehow slipped past his gaze. Not me, though, however much I believed (after a half hour-plus wait) that my turn had finally arrived. When I tried to enter the main room, this guy literally jammed an elbow in front of my stomach to block my way -- and then slammed the door right in my face. Ouch!

While it's easy to blame such incidents on lack of preparation, or the stress that comes from dealing with a large crowd, it's also a cop-out -- because I haven't seen volunteers act this way at the other pantries I visit. Like it or not, perception is everything in today's society, and what does slamming the door in somebody's face naturally connote? "F#ck you, buddy, you're not wanted, really. Beat it."

Spend time training volunteers in the fine art of common courtesy, since they'll probably deal with all walks of life in the food pantry line. Food insecurity plays no favorites: I've met people with college degrees, high school dropouts, and ex-professionals who found the rung yanked out from under them when their high-flying job suddenly disappeared. Believe me, I've seen it all.

Above all else, treat clients like you'd want to be treated, with dignity, grace, and respect -- and I guarantee that most, if not all, the concerns I've outlined above will take care of themselves. Too often in America, the prevailing attitude towards the poor is: "Take what you're given, no matter what." Sadly, this same attitude often invites food bank and pantry operators to cut corners, and skimp on civility, or service, to their everlasting detriment.

Again, don't take these comments personally. I'm just tired of seeing the same stumbling blocks rearing their pointed little heads, again and again. Unlike our political leadership. I happen to believe that we can -- and must -- do better, starting with the proposition that we don't have to keep rehashing the mistakes of the past, such as continuing treat people like statistics.

Those hungry faces shuffling through the door, myself included, expect -- and deserve --- nothing less.

The Reckoner

Links To Go (Hurry, Before
Your Food Card Gets Cut Yet Again):

Feeding America:
Hunger America (Poverty Facts And Statistics):


  1. Hey Reckoner, I get disappointed by the food pantries too. I bought a lot of food this week and my blood sugars went down, the more money I spend the better the sugars, that is kind of a mind screw. Why do they pass out so many carbohydrates with the food pantries? Do they want more diabetic poor people?

  2. Regarding your last sentence, I'd say -- quite possibly. I suspect that I can't be the only chap who thinks this way, or has made similar comments, but the same carb-/sugar-heavy fare appears, like clockwork. You'd think they'd wise up, but alas, "maturity" or "pragmatism" often becomes a code word for..."rehashing the mistakes of the past"...so there you go, then. --The Reckoner