I went to visit some family in Oklahoma City over the weekend who are very active in their church. They volunteer monthly in the food pantry their church supports, and because I was there I decided to help and see how their small pantry worked.
We arrived a half hour before the doors opened and there was already a line of twenty people. A lady close to the front of the line handed me a bag, telling me a man had dropped it off as a donation and asked her to turn it in.
We headed into the building and I received a tour of the "pantry". It was actually well appointed, with six large freezers and lots of shelving. Initially, it didn't appear to me that there was very much food on the shelves...and some of it was indeed junk food. Individuals requesting help are given "pantry bucks" to spend based on the size of their family and their reported income. Volunteers take the "bucks" and escort each client around the pantry with a cart, showing them what is available and letting them pick the products that fit within their "pantry buck" budget and their eating habits.
There was an enormous amount of meat, which had been donated by Walmart and was all past its sell by date. All of the freezers were full. One held nothing but frozen vegetables - corn, sliced zucchini, carrots and yellow wax beans. In the process of helping the clients, I couldn't help but think about what I would select if I were in their position. What I saw was very interesting.
The hispanic clients were very structured - meat, vegetables, rice, beans, and very little processed food. They looked for cuts of meat we consider less desireable - thighs rather than boneless skinless chicken breasts, and they were also the only group that selected whole chickens and gizzards, which a young boy translating for his mother told me were wonderful in soup. The other ethnic groups were not so focused on nutrition, choosing instead potato chips, soda, ramen and pasta. I realize that food pantries carry whatever is donated to them and rarely have the opportunity to choose the food that lines their shelves, but it bothered me to have the junk food drawing attention away from better choices when these people had so little to start with. I wondered if the individuals really understood the difference good nutrition could make in their health...or even what good nutrition was.
One gentleman told me he had no access to a kitchen or even a freezer, meaning he had to forgo the frozen meat and vegetables and opt instead for canned goods and dry cereal. This was a circumstance I hadn't really thought about before...that even when nutritious food is available and accessible, it's not always feasible for the individual to accept it.
We served 68 clients in two and half hours that evening. The shelves were almost cleaned out of dry goods, and they needed to restock for the following day. I left feeling that I had done some good, but also that it was the tip of the iceberg. But that is another discussion.