March 4, 2010

Our new pantry experiment: Choose your food

Most days, clients of Bread for the City’s pantry take a number, wait their turn, and receive a standard bag of pre-packaged groceries. These bags are carefully balanced to provide a rounded set of food items – canned fruit and vegetables, a packet of rice, a meat item, etc, in proportion with the size of a client's family. Recently, however, we started to change things up a bit.

In the past few years, as part of our mission to serve and care for people in an atmosphere of dignity and respect, we’ve overhauled our pantry menu to feature an array of more nutritious items. The results of that Nutrition Initiative were really positive: healthier diets and higher client satisfaction.

Now we are experimenting with pantry innovation once again: exploring opportunities to enable client choice in our pantry menu. We envision a food pantry in which people can select which food they bring home, just like they would at a grocery store.

To be sure, this would be a logistical challenge. But there’s quite a few reasons why client choice would be an effective process. For one, Bread for the City is not the only source of food for our clients; many clients may already have sufficient amounts of certain kinds of food, but may be in greater need of others. Some of our clients have special dietary needs that make certain foods especially important, and others not helpful at all. And most of all, as our nutrition consultant Sharon Gruber says: “one of the most debilitating things about living with a low income is a lack of control — and food is one of the most basic things that we can or cannot control in our lives.”

Louise Thundercloud, a longtime Bread for the City client and community activist, wrote about that very point on this blog, explaining that a lack of control over food “is related to the problem of very low self esteem: feeling as though you deserve only what is given to you, because you feel so terrible about yourself.”

So on January 28th, we transformed our Southeast Center food pantry into a makeshift grocery store. Armed with a reusable bag, clients selected every component of their groceries. Bread for the City staff engaged directly with clients to help put together food bags. Clients pondered their choices, happily snatching favorites while politely declining other items they might not want or need. Staff laughed with clients and chatted about the choice experiment.

“Choice is much better! I get to pick what I want. This month I have enough cans and dry goods, I just needed meat and fresh veggies.”

Indeed we noticed that, when given options, clients displayed a clear preference to avoid waste, and many even took pride in leaving food behind for others.

We asked each client survey questions after shopping, and 97% of participants rated the experience a 5 out of 5. I asked one beaming client what she thought, and she replied, “I love this because I get to pick out the best options for me. Please keep it going!”

Stay tuned for more results of this exciting new experiment…


Mari said...

Yay! Letting people choose for themselves and trusting them is very empowering!

Emily Bell said...

Fantastic idea! I hope you can do this in the NW food pantry soon, too. Giving people the power of choice is so closely linked with encouraging dignity and respect. This is very inspiring, thank you for sharing and keep up the great work!