When I think of a food pantry, or the food closet, that staple of community engagement for so many churches and neighborhood organizations, I think of bags or boxes handed to a long line of hardy folks who have braved the cold or the heat to get the help they need to feed their families. Many are what are often tagged as the working poor – men and women who make barely enough to pay the rent, or to cover the cost of getting to and from a minimum-wage job, but not enough to buy a bag of apples or a fresh, cold watermelon to brighten up a hot summer day and feed their hungry kids.
The Food Bank provides food to hundreds of food pantries in communities across central and western Oklahoma. These pantries are run by folks as hard-working and resourceful as the families they serve. They wrote the book on being frugal and turning a little into a lot. For most pantries, handing out boxes or bags of food is fast and efficient and clients are thankful. But pantry personnel began to ask themselves what would happen if families could choose the food they want and need, rather than receive a pre-packed box. They realized the boxes might contain things already in their clients’ kitchens at home, or food they couldn’t eat because of medically restricted diets. The good food they worked so hard to provide might be wasted!
Many of the Food Bank’s partner food pantries are now blazing a new trail – setting up their pantries, big or small, so that clients can shop for the food they take home. Not only is food no longer wasted, but clients are leaving with huge smiles, expressing their thanks for the opportunity to shop in a dignified, respectful atmosphere.
One of the first folks to come through such a pantry was a man in his early forties. He had multiple health problems and could no longer work; he’d applied for disability but that was still pending approval and he was the sole caregiver for his mother, who was also ill. He had been to food pantries in the past and said he was grateful for their help – but the truth was – most of the items he received he was unable to eat due to his health condition. He was amazed that a volunteer took the time to help him read the labels and find foods that were low in sodium and fit his restricted diet.
Another pantry recently reported clients’ excitement that they could choose food their kids would eat, or food they knew how to cook! One client was especially happy. Because she didn’t have teeth, she couldn’t always eat what was given to her. Now she was thrilled choose the food that was easy for her to eat. A pantry reported that a client got back out of her car after loading her groceries, threw her arms around the neck of the pantry director and hugged her, telling her what a wonderful place this pantry was and how much it meant to be able to pick out her own groceries.
It’s rare when something happens that is a win for everyone involved. A pantry that provides the clients with a choice of food is one of those rare opportunities. Less food is wasted because folks don’t take what they know they won’t eat, and clients experience the positive effect on their self-esteem when given the freedom to choose.
Vice President of Community Initiatives