The 2017 Shari Prestemon Social Justice Interns have graciously agreed to share their experiences with all of us. From time to time, we’ll be posting ‘journal entries’ from Naiomi Gonzalez and Katy Morton. Below is one of these entries.

The Food Pantry.

This week I had the opportunity to learn how the food pantry here at Back Bay Mission works.

I have had the privilege of growing up working in the amazing community food pantry and soup kitchen in my hometown in Pennsylvania, so the idea of food pantries have always held a special place in my heart. Manna on Main Street was started back in the 1980s, in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, to address the unmet need of food insecurity in the community for low-income and homeless individuals and families. Manna was started as a more typical food pantry and soup kitchen in which volunteers assembled bags of food and each individual at the pantry received a bag when they came in for food. In more recent years, Manna switched to the client-choice method in which clients are able to come in and ‘shop’ the pantry. Clients are given a shopping cart, just like at the grocery store, and are able to pick out items from the shelves.

Much like Manna, the Mission’s food pantry started as a typical pantry, and moved to the client-choice method in more recent years. Client choice is an amazing option for pantries for many reasons. Client choice allows clients to make their own food and nutrition choices. Oftentimes, there is an element of shame involved with needing food pantry or other social service assistance, but with the client choice method of food pantry assistance, there is far more independence and dignity. Rather than a volunteer handing you a bag of food based on your family size, you are provided with a shopping cart and allowed to make your own choices for yourself and your family. The pantry at Back Bay is filled with all different canned goods, as well as basics and staple items, and refrigerated foods. The client choice method also allows employees and pantry volunteers to spend more time interacting with clients, hearing their stories, and creating connections.

In the long run, client choice pantries may also end up saving the organization money, and certainly prevent a great deal of food waste from occurring in the community. With the traditional method of food pantry food distribution, clients would take the assembled bag of food home, and may end up throwing away items that their family did not like/would not eat. With the client choice method, clients are able to pick out items that they know will be consumed in their home and therefore end up wasting less food in the long run. I am all for the agency saving money and less food going to waste, but to me, the most important and impactful part of a client choice food pantry is the ability to preserve autonomy and dignity and promote more independence among clients.

There is a common misconception that many people who utilize social services, and especially food pantries, are trying to ‘take advantage of the system’. Oftentimes, individuals and families use food pantries to supplement the food they are able to purchase with their income or food stamps. Low-income families and individuals are often faced with difficult choices every day. For those of us who are fortunate to be considered above the low-income or poverty threshold, we may not have to make these difficult choices. I know I have been fortunate enough to never have to worry where my next meal was coming from, and have never had to put something back at the grocery store because I couldn’t pay for it. I have had the opportunity to travel, experience all different places and activities, and go to college. I have never truly wanted for anything, except maybe a mansion and a million dollars to pay off student loans! The truth is, many of us take the fact that we don’t have to choose between buying a take out pizza or food for the week, for granted. Or choose between taking our family to the movies, or being able to afford clothing for school for our children.

The opinion of many people who have never had to make these choices before, is that low-income or impoverished individuals and families are being selfish for making the same choices we make every day. We scoff at the mother who comes to the pantry with a designer purse, thinking that she is taking advantage of the system and why does she need the pantry if she can afford that purse. The truth is, we really have no idea what her situation is or what it has been in the past. That woman with the nice purse could have bought that before she lost her job, or perhaps before she left an abusive relationship, and also half of her income. There are hundreds more scenarios such as the one listed above, but the point is that we never know someone’s full story and it is certainly not our place to judge them for using a social service such as the food pantry. In the same token, just think how hard it would be for you to have to use a food pantry if your family fell on hard times. Would you feel ashamed? Embarrassed? Sad? Would it be hard for you to ask strangers for help? Would you fear being judged? Would you feel a loss of control?

One of the main points of a client-choice pantry, is that a certain amount of the stigma and shame that is often associated with food pantries and similar social services, is removed. It is then often replaced with some feelings of autonomy, independence, and empowerment. It is for this reason that I hope that more pantries across the country begin to head in the direction of client choice, and I feel so fortunate that I have had the opportunity to spend time in not one, but two, amazing client-choice pantries in my short time as a social worker.

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