Communities east of the Anacostia River suffer from an infamous shortage of grocery stores, and here at Bread for the City we’re doing our part to counteract that lack: we’ve made our food pantry a lot more like the shopping experience.
We’ve previewed this new project on Beyond Bread before: in A Week of Choice, food pantry coordinator Jeffrey Wankel told you that, “after two successful dry-runs, Client Choice...went live for an entire week at our Southeast Center,” teaching us all a very important lesson. “Our clients love the ability to choose what food they receive from our pantry. This alone makes it a priority for us to implement Client Choice as a permanent feature of our food program.”
So we’re pleased to report that the Southeast pantry is now all Client Choice all the time--to the rave reviews of clients, staff and volunteers.
According to Food Coordinator Tony Weldon, the Client Choice program “sets us apart from a church basement, or something like that, even just with the visual effect,” he explains.
The pantry now boasts new shelving units and a layout that is carefully constructed to guide clients through the array of options. After a few months of tweaking, Jeff is proud to note that the “cycle time” (i.e., the average length of each client’s time checking in and receiving their bags) is now comparable to the previous system.
Most of all, the clients love it. “This is their words,” Tony said: “‘Wow! Ya’ll stepped your game up!”
Another positive side-effect of this new system: volunteers and clients actually get to know each other. “Client choice has opened the lines of communication.. and there is noticeably more constructive feedback.” Volunteers are able to learn more about the clients they serve, and clients enjoy seeing familiar faces month after month.
Meanwhile, Client Choice has made our staff less busy. That may seem counterintuitive, since there are more decisions being made with every single bag we give out. And yet, prior to Choice, Tony and his food pantry staff were responsible not only for distributing bags to clients, but also for supervising the volunteers who stuffed bags. Managing both sides -- on top of the day-to-day logistics of orders and deliveries and so on -- stretched pantry staff to their limits. With Client Choice, clients pack their own bags, while volunteers guide them from station to station. It’s all one process. Tony and his staff still oversee pantry operations, but they’re left with more time to chat with clients, get to know volunteers, and tinker with big-picture aspects of the system.
“We still get to see their smiles, and that is great,” said Tony.
Client Choice has become more than just an experimental program, or a way to shake things up in the food pantry world. It is a chance for our clients to exercise their independence even in the most difficult of circumstances. And it is a testament to the commitment and dedication of the late, great Ted Pringle, who -- in his final months at the pantry -- took just one look at the Client Choice experiment and declared his utmost support for the program.
Jeff, who helped develop the Client Choice program in SE, hopes to “make Client Choice an organization-wide initiative,” once the pending Northwest Center expansion broadens the food pantry space to allow for a similar setup. Eventually, Jeff hopes both food pantries will feature slanted produce tables and a larger variety of food, to give our clients an even more independent shopping experience. It’s going to be difficult, budget-wise, but Jeff says that “this is something we just have to do. We really have no choice.”