Barely a Drop in the Bucket

The food pantry where I volunteer operates on an appointment basis.  One client is scheduled every half hour.  This method of operation ensures a manageable flow of clients receiving food and keeps the waiting area from becoming too congested.  Unfortunately it also creates a backlog of clients waiting to receive an appointment for food, sometimes as long a two weeks.  When a client is unable to keep an appointment, they go back into the line of clients waiting for an appointment.


The past two weeks, during my time volunteering at the food pantry, something unusual has happened.  Clients scheduled to come and get food have not come in for their appointment.  I volunteer from 9am-12pm, so usually only 6 clients can come in during that time to receive their monthly allotment of food.  Often we have one client out of the six not show up, but this past week only one client came in for food.  During that time we were also able to assist someone who came in without an appointment, but was eligible to receive food.  The previous week only half of the scheduled clients kept their appointments.

At first glance clients not coming in for food may seem like a good thing.  Maybe their situation has changed for the better.  Maybe they are no longer food insecure.  But after almost a year volunteering in food pantries I have learned this is probably not the case.  In the past clients influenzausually fail to keep appointments to get food because their ride fell through or their car broke down.  They have missed appointments due to illness, either their own or another family member.  During the winter months weather is a factor, particularly for the clients who walk.  Sometimes clients schedule their appointments to coincide with a break from work, but for whatever reason that break doesn’t happen as scheduled.

My point in sharing my concern with clients not showing up for their appointments is not to complain about wasted time or denigrate our clients.  My intent is to show how this situation perfectly illustrates one of the “Seven Deadly ‘ins'” of the emergency food system, as posited by charity bookJanet Poppendieck in her book Sweet Charity.  The “deadly in” to which I am referring is inaccessibility.  This particular food bank is open from 9am-4pm, 3-4 days per week, but only on week days.  Furthermore clients must have an appointment to receive food.  They must remember to call two weeks before their eligibility date because of the roughly a two week waiting period for an appointment.  If they find at the time of the appointment they can not make it, as stated above, them must start the process all over again.  Calling to cancel is helpful for food pantry staff, but usually the cancelation, if it comes at all, is last minute as the reason is usually unforeseen.  Consequently, staff is rarely able to reschedule another client on such short notice; therefore, not only has the originally scheduled client not received food, but s/he has also kept someone else from getting an appointment.  All of these clients are in need of food, but due to the limitations of the emergency food delivery system it is inaccessible to them.

This example of food pantry clients missing their appointments also highlights another of Poppendieck’s “Seven Deadly ‘ins,'” the inefficiency inherent in the delivery of emergency food.  Not only does this method of delivery require a sizeable three tiered system (federal, state and local agencies) to distribute the food, but it duplicates the food delivery system already in place in society–the grocery store.  In our rural community there are at least 3 large grocery storessupermarket which are open seven days a week, two of which are open 24 hours a day.  Additionally, there are several markets in and around town and a weekly farmers’ market during the growing season.  Wouldn’t it be more efficient and cost effective to just increase the monthly SNAP allowance and make sure all those who are eligible to receive those benefits are getting them, instead of funding this inefficient, parallel food delivery system?  This option would allow those who are food insecure and need assistance to use the system already in place in society when it is convenient for them, given their daily commitments, instead of relying on a parallel food delivery system that is much less convenient to access.

In a chapter from A Place at the Table, the companion book to the documentary of the same name, Joel Berg compares the emergency food delivery system to the fireman’s bucket brigade of the past.  Prior Fireman_brigadeto the mid 1800s, when there was a fire in a city or town, bucket brigades would be formed to combat the fire.  Citizens would line up from the town well or another water source and pass buckets full of water to the fire, with empty buckets returning down another line.  The problem was that these bucket brigades, although well intentioned, rarely put out any but the smallest of fires.  To remedy the inefficiency of the bucket brigades local governments stepped in to create fire companies with better fire fighting equipment.  Today we would never think of trying to fight a house fire with a bucket brigade.

Hunger in the United States is a fire that we are currently trying to fight with a bucket brigade.  Local citizens in food banks, pantries and soup kitchens across the country are trying to put out the building sized fire of hunger with a bucket sized solution.  Just like when the government of yesteryear stepped in to create a more effectivefire truck solution to the problem of fires, the government of today needs to reorganize how assistance for those who are food insecure is delivered into a more efficient, effective method.  I enjoy volunteering in the food pantry and the good feeling I get from knowing I am helping someone, but I look forward to the time when the emergency food delivery system of food banks, pantries and soup kitchens goes the way of the bucket brigade.  Once that happens, maybe the fire of hunger in America will begin to be extinguished.



Community Meal, With a Side of Dignity

Pinpointing the first example of meals prepared and distributed to the needy proves an impossible task, as societies through the ages have recognized a moral obligation to feed those of it’s citizens who were hungry.  Evidence of providing free meals to the needy can be found GD soup kitchen linethrough out history in most countries.  Organizations providing these meals, often called soup kitchens, were in wide use in the United States during the Great Depression.  According to Janet Poppendieck in her book,  Sweet Charity?  Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement, most societies, including the United States, rejected the idea of soup kitchens as a solution to feeding the hungry, because they stigmatized users by demeaning them and segregating them from the rest of society.  Consequently the use of centrally prepared and served meals, like those found in soup kitchens, fell out of favor until the emergency food epidemic of the 1980s, when their numbers begin to increase dramatically (Poppendieck, 14).

Today, organizations providing a prepared meal for those in need take steps to reduce the stigma that receiving a free meal can cause.  One popular way organizations attempt to maintain the dignity of those receiving a free meal is to have volunteers function as wait staff and serve dinersplace setting2 on real dishes.  Efforts are taken to eliminate waiting in long lines.  Some larger agencies have moved to a café style operation, where diners can place an order after choosing items from a menu (Poppendieck, 247).  Another way organizations providing a meal to those in need reduce the stigma associated with receiving that meal is to invite the whole community to partake of the meal.  These meals are often referred to as community meals and everyone is welcome to dine.  Usually a donation is suggested, but not required.

Once a month the Presbyterian Church in our town holds a community meal.  The meal is served at dinner time on the last Sunday of the month and is open to anyone.  In keeping with most community dinners, a donation is suggested, but not required.  The idea for this meal originated with the Church’s youth group in the spring of 2011 and is now overseen by the outreach committee.  In the Church’s Fellowship Hall, several rows of long tables are set with placemats, silverware and glasses.  As diners arrive they may sit where ever they choose and are Chicken Parmaserved the meal by volunteers on real plates.  The meal consists of a meat, starch, vegetable and roll.  For beverages, there is a choice of water, iced tea, coffee or hot tea.  Once most diners have arrived and been served, those who wish can receive seconds, provided there is enough food left. When diners finish their main meal, several desserts from which to choose are available.  Approximately 120 meals are served to diners each month at this community dinner.  During these meals, the Church’s Fellowship Hall lives up to its name, as friends, family, neighbors and strangers from all socio-economic levels sit down to eat together.

Twice this past year I have had the opportunity to help at this community dinner by serving the meal, bussing dirty dishes and participating in the final clean up once the meal is finished.  The experience, for me, has been a thoroughly enjoyable one.  I enjoy the camaraderie of the fellow volunteers, the exchange of pleasantries with those I know and the satisfaction I receive from helping others, both the church’s outreach group and those eating the meal.  Of all the tasks I do, I particularly enjoy serving the meal and clearing the plates away when diners are finished.  Regardless of one’s life circumstances, being served is a treat.  As a mother, I know how much I truly appreciate when someone in my house volunteers to wait on me.  So by serving someone who may be food insecure a warm meal with a smile, I feel like I am treating them and giving them back some of the dignity that gets stripped away when a person has to struggle on a daily basis to obtain enough food to feed themselves or their family.


Plenty of Food for Thought

I just finished Janet Poppendieck’s book Sweet Charity?: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement, and as I expected, in the end, we were not too far apart on our assessment of emergency food and the role it plays in assisting the food insecure.  That said, she did introduce issues I had not previously considered and challenged the way in which I had thought about certain aspects of providing emergency food.  Poppendieck contends that emergency food organizations, like soup kitchens and food banks, are run by caring and compassionate staff and volunteers who are committed to providing food to those who are hungry.  In today’s world such people and organizations are a necessity, but she also argues that these same organizations enable the cycle of hunger to continue.  By participating in providing emergency food, either through volunteering or donating, Americans may feel like they are solving a problem.  In reality, providing emergency food diverts our attention from larger societal problems like poverty and inequality and keeps us from working toward solutions to these problems for which hunger is just a pantry open sign

In one of the most interesting chapters of the book Poppendieck discusses what is wrong with emergency food.   As someone who recently became a volunteer in two food pantries and who has felt positive about my experiences and effort, I was curious about what she would identify as shortcomings.  Listed below are the “7 Deadly ‘Ins’” of emergency food Poppendieck has identified.

  • Insufficiency—Emergency food organizations often have to limit the frequency with which clients can come to the food pantry, whether there is a waiting list for service, and the amount of food distributed to each client.
  • Inappropriateness–Emergency food organizations can not possibly have enough items to satisfy the preferences or special dietary needs of every client.  Both pantries in which I volunteer stock vegetarian beans, a commodity from the Federal government.  Very few clients take these beans and most universally say they taste terrible.  Additionally, emergency food rarely is appropriate for diabetics or sufferers of high blood pressure, obesity or heart disease.
  • Nutritional Inadequacy–As touched upon above, many food offerings through emergency food agencies are high in sodium, fats, and sugar.  There is very little fresh produce available and often several of the meats offered are processed items like hot dogs, chicken tenders and lunch meat.
  • Instability–The provision of emergency food relies on surplus food from the government and sometimes businesses, donations from the public and a volunteer workforce.  All of these components are subject to fluctuations, causing instability in providing emergency food.
  • Inaccessibility–Emergency food offerings differ with location.  For instance, urban areas tend to have more emergency food options, like food banks and soup kitchens, where more rural areas may have only one or no options.  Additionally affecting emergency food’s accessibility is the emergency food organization’s hours of operation and proximity to public transportation.
  • Inefficiency–Distribution of emergency food duplicates the food delivery system already in place.  Often as emergency food distribution agencies increase, inner cities experience a decline in the availability of markets and grocery stores.  Additionally, emergency food may seem efficient, but these agencies do not count as an expense anything that is donated, including food, equipment, storage buildings, and labor from volunteers.
  • Indignity–Distributing emergency food through food banks, pantries and soup kitchens forces those receiving assistance to be segregated from the rest of society.  They must go to a place different from where the rest of society gets their food. soup kitchen line

As I thought about these “7 deadly ‘ins'” as they related to my volunteering experience I realized I had witnessed every single one.  I believe both food pantries in which I volunteer do the very best they can with what they have to offer.  Without them, the clients would be in a much worse situation; however, I believe the increased reliance on emergency food to assist these clients is an inadequate solution to the problem they face.

In spite of the shortfalls of emergency food, Poppendieck also addresses its success, and more importantly, the price of its success.  The 1980s, when cuts were made in funding public assistance programs, saw a dramatic rise in emergency food providers, an increase that has continued until today.  As these agencies proliferated, they became extremely successful at operating, stretching whatever they got, making it work.  They highlight these successes when they fundraise or ask for donations to assure donors their donations won’t be squandered.  Infood drive turn government can rationalize further cuts in public assistance because emergency food providers are so competent in handling the situation.  Emergency food provision as enabler for further governmental reduction in public assistance is a new and troubling concept for me.

At the very end of her book, Janet Poppendieck asks what emergency food providers are to do.  She outlines a couple of options, but the one that resonated the most with me was to organize and educate, especially the educate part.  I believe we need to talk about hunger within the broader context of poverty and inequality.  While continuing to provide the best assistance that can be provided, emergency food providers need to be honest with the public, that at best, they are a Band-Aid to the problem of hunger and only through addressing the larger societal issues of poverty and inequality can the numbers of people experiencing food insecurity be diminished.

One last point I would like to make is that at no time does Janet Poppendieck disparage emergency food providers or the assistance they provide.  She acknowledges their monumental effort and that without their services the hungry of the United State would be in much worse circumstances.

America’s New National Pastime


No, I don’t mean baseball!  I have just started reading a book entitled Sweet Charity?:  Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement, by Janet charity bookPoppendieck.  In this book she contends that so many Americans participate in the fight to end hunger by donating to or volunteering in soup kitchens or food banks and pantries that it has become a national pastime.  Poppendieck chronicles the increased reliance on charity as a response to poverty and hunger in the United States, while noting the erosion of government provided assistance.  She contends that this resurgence in charity is a Band-Aid approach to ending poverty and hunger and is not the positive force it appears to be at first glance.

Her argument is two-fold.  First she states that America soundly rejected this form of poverty remediation over half a century ago.  Private charitable organizations, Poppendieck suggests, are inefficient and vary from location to location in the amount of assistance they provide.  She further states that serving meals and distributing groceries is inadequate assistance and serves to separate and segregate those in poverty from the rest of society.

The second point in Poppendieck’s argument is that participating in a charitable response to hunger and poverty diverts our attention from an actual solution to poverty in America.  Volunteering in and donating to charitable food distribution organizations, she contends, makes many Americans feel good and gives them a sense that the hunger problem is being addressed.  Poppendieck suggests that all this goodwill Americans feel prevents us from working to implement national policies with the goal of truly ending poverty and hunger in America.

As someone who has just committed a large amount of my time to volunteering in food pantries and working to fill some of the gaps that exist in assisting the food insecure, I was taken aback by the notion that I might be doing more harm than good.  I am, however, intrigued by what she has to say.  I have a feeling in the end we will not be too far apart on our assessment of the situation and what needs to occur to eliminate food insecurity in the United States.  That said, I do think this book will at times challenge my beliefs and opinions.

I think it is healthy to challenge the beliefs we hold, be they religious, political, or philosophical.  Part of the problem we face in the United States today stems from the fact that people surround themselves with information and people that reinforce their belief structure.  But that is a whole other discussion and one I don’t plan to undertake on this blog.   As I stated, I have just started reading the book, but I will share with you my thoughts on the topic and the book when I am done.  I am curious to see how or if it will alter the course of my journey to assist the food insecure.

I would be interested in your initial response to Poppendieck’s premise, or if you have read the book, what you thought about it.