Monday, September 26, 2016

A critical look at food pantries

Having gone from being around the poverty line, to quite a ways above, to considerably below seems to have turned me into somewhat of an armchair sociologist. It's definitely fascinating to observe the privileges that come and go, as well as the able-to-present-as-middle-class one that might be the hardest for someone to obtain and hardest to take away.

Today I've been pondering food pantries. For the uninitiated, food pantries are (at least in states where food stamp and welfare distribution is funded and functional) programs that provide nonperishable and small amounts of perishable food to individuals and families who are either waiting for government food stamp (SNAP) benefits or who make too much based on the government guidelines but have a financial need because of a situation that the government isn't allowed to take into account. Some of these are run on an entirely volunteer basis, through houses of worship and other community organizations. Others are run through nonprofits using some combination of paid and volunteer resources. Some require participants to sign up and demonstrate financial need, some require identification of some sort to make sure people aren't participating more than they can allow, and others are completely anonymous.

If you've read anything I've ever written, you know that obviously I'm in favor of programs that provide for the needy. I of course favor a government that provides a high minimum standard of living for its people, but that's neither here nor there. In terms of programs that are available to us in 2000s Boston, I have worked at programs that provide for the needy, I've donated to them, and I've benefited from them -- both government-run and privately run. I wholeheartedly support these programs continuing to exist and being expanded and made easier to use.

But what I'm not sure I support is the current model of food pantries distributing actual physical food. And I have some skepticism around why this model persists.

The resources that go into these programs is immense. The programs collect food, usually at schools, businesses, and houses of worship. It's transported to a storage location. The storage locations can be quite large, up to full-sized warehouses for some of the larger programs. The larger programs run through nonprofits have full-time staff who are in charge of determining whether people are eligible. The smaller ones have volunteers running them, who could be spending their labor elsewhere, so it's not entirely free. Nothing is free. The programs often also distribute groceries to people who are older, disabled, have small children, etc., and can't easily come get the items. Again, even when this is volunteer labor, it comes from somewhere. They have distribution dates and times in which they have staff present, in a building that's climate controlled and up to sanitary codes and all that, for people to come and pick groceries.

This must cost a fortune. Surely it would be cheaper to mail people a grocery store gift card every month. (And allow people without a fixed residence or ability to safely receive mail to pick it up somewhere.) And probably frankly cheaper to skip the eligibility routine. I can't remember where I read this and my google-fu is failing me, but requiring people to sign off on something or speak to an actual person is a pretty damn good deterrent against people taking modest benefits that they aren't entitled to. And it makes sense to me; I think that even just having people put their name and address on a sheet and sign off that they meet the guidelines would result in very little fraud. I mean, really, do you think very many financially secure people are going to go hang out at a food pantry to get a few bucks' worth of groceries?

So, why does the food pantry model persist? Is it more about making the donors feel good than about providing food? And how much does the whole "I get to choose what poor people are allowed to have" play into it? That's what I imagine this is really about. I'm guessing that plenty of people who say they are basically progressive would be fine donating foods to a food bank and supporting its existence, but if you asked them about just giving gift cards, they'd have some conservative excuse about how "those people" would just use it to buy crap, or "those people" would buy something that isn't food.

We used these programs when The Thing™ happened and we were suddenly without much income, and I noticed that the food people donate to food banks is largely status quo "healthy" food. Which, I was cool with this because that's a lot of what we buy, but still, people seem to donate canned fruits and vegetables, boxes of plain low-cal foods like plain rice, plain pasta, a lot of canned tomato products, plain cereals, plain oatmeal. A good proportion of it was organic and high-end brands, too. I pretty much never saw anything like crackers I'd want to eat by themselves, any sorts of cookies, non-plain cereals, cake mixes, or anything like that. Just plain, mostly organic, fruits, vegetables, whole grains

Again, good stuff, for my family who has proper pots and pans and enough expendable income to buy milk, oil, produce, spices, sugar, and other things to add to it. But having known lots of food-insecure people in my life (and having had periods in my young adulthood where I didn't have stable housing or income), I have always have made sure to donate higher-calorie foods and foods that don't require other ingredients to make a decent meal. If the food pantry haul is all you have for the week, you're going to be better off with things like Mac and Cheese or rice and beans packets that don't need anything but water added. Or cans of stews and higher-calorie soups. Oh, and ramen. Ramen is 400 calories for one packet, which cost 10-25 cents. I make a lot of it myself. I add veggies, tofu, and eggs when I can, but I absolutely buy ramen largely because it's cheaper than rice or pasta and it ensures that everyone gets enough calories.

People rarely donate these things though. I rarely see any processed foods with a decent amount of calories that can be consumed on their own. I see organic, expensive, minimally processed foods. My only conclusion is that the people donating honestly think they're doing something really great for the poor people. They're thinking that they're providing healthier foods than we usually have. I mean, on some level they are; I don't often have organic $8 steel-cut oatmeal. But think about how many of the families using the food pantry don't have a fully stocked kitchen, only can afford the food the food pantry gives them, and would benefit more from the box of high-fructose-corn-syrup-arrific instant oatmeal packets. And think about how many more calories they would get for that $8 if they instead got several boxes of oatmeal packets.

I do really think the problem is that the people who do most of the donating, while well-intentioned, aren't thinking in terms of what they would want in the same situation. If I think about what people in this household have needed recently, we've had an adult who needed lunches to take to a workplace with a microwave but no fridge, kids who've needed to take a non-refrigerated, non-smashable-in-backpack snack to a day camp, and an instance in which someone needed to bring a celebratory item to share. Listen, our family is pretty happy with being unconventional, but even so, there is just no way we're going to send a bowl of plain oatmeal to an end-of-the-season celebration, or bring along a can of plain beans to microwave at work, or send a container of room-temperature pasta to camp when everyone else is bringing chips and granola bars. We make do with minimalist food at home, as you've seen here, but let's get real. We managed to provide for camp and work and all that with items we coupon for, but there's just no way we would have been able to do this on food pantry items alone if that was all we had access to. Yet the idea seems to persist that poor people don't need "junk food" like noodle packets and granola bars, and I'm sure we didn't need "fancy food" like the $3 package of seaweed I used to make cucumber sushi rolls for my kid's team.

I would love to see research as to 1) whether people would donate the same amount of money they spend on food pantry donations if they didn't get to control what people end up eating and didn't get the sense of altruism that they provided organic healthy foods to those poor people who don't know any better and 2) whether some of the people would donate at all, or whether they'd make snide comments about how "those people" would just buy junk, or sell the card, or whatever.

I mean, really, people could just as easily sell the food from the food pantry, right? If someone is really in that desperate of a situation that they're selling either food or their gift card, doesn't that mean that the people who are in a position to donate are in a much better place, and should have compassion for them? And what are we assuming poor people are buying if they do sell their card? I've heard that selling food stamps to buy diapers or pay for child care is fairly prevalent. Should this offend me? Yes, it does, but only in the sense that there are people in the wealthiest country in the world who are needing to do this.

And really, if someone is using any funds they can find to gamble or use substances, is the solution that we cut them off further from food so that they (and their dependents) are hungry too in addition to whatever illness they have? And as far as people buying junk, or buying fancy stuff, how does it affect me? Does it affect me any differently if I donate $20 a month and someone buys their kid a birthday cake instead of organic oatmeal? Especially because nearly all of what I donate would be going to feed a family, instead of the cash running the program and the organic oatmeal going to people who might prefer other things. I would love to know if someone has looked into moving food banks to a cash/gift card model instead of the current model, and what conclusions they came to.

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