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5 Myths You Probably Believe About Food Pantries (& the Poor)

visit to local food pantry with kids

“Why are we going there? Are we getting poor?”

I could hear the concern in my daughter’s voice after I told them we were going to Buist Community Assistance Center, our amazing local food pantry, for a tour in a few days. Just as learning practical life skills like cooking is important to their development, I knew that exposing my kids to what it feels like to hit hard times (and the joy of service through volunteering) would be a perfect way to help them grow as people on the first day of summer vacation.

Food insecurity is so stressful that even the thought of it brings anxiety to a child. And what is it like for an adult to not know where the next meal for their child is coming from? I know how that feels – but only in a very first-world sense.

When you’re making everything from scratch (and especially on an Elimination Diet Meal Plan like we’re doing right now), there’s no day off, no cheat day. I can be coming up on dinner knowing that I have to make everything, and just wanting a break. I often whine, “I don’t know what we’re having for dinner!”

Quite frankly, it makes me cranky and angry. And I have plenty of food in the house. I just don’t know what I’m making. I can’t imagine the stress of actually not having enough money to buy food to prepare for my family.

I was thrilled when Meijer reached out to me and offered a little field trip for the whole family to our local food pantry.

I was quick to reassure my daughter that no, we weren’t at risk of needing assistance or “getting poor” anytime soon, but her comment (and worry) got me thinking.

How do we who have enough think about those who don’t? As much as I value equality and seeing every person as a child of God, I admit that in my subconscious, there is judgment. There is a little bit of fear. And there’s definitely a strong feeling that I don’t want to be there myself.

Let’s pull back the curtain today on how many Americans view those with not enough money to get by – when we think about them at all.

Disclosure: This post is sponsored by Meijer through their Simply Give partnership with the LPGA Classic. But what a great message to share no matter what!!

Local Food Pantry Tour

can you get healthy food if you're poor

Our local food pantry is Buist Community Assistance Center. They have been around 10 years and serve the community on an individual and societal level. The center was founded by Larry Buist of Buist Electric, a true visionary, and has been run by Shirley TenHamsel since its inception.

Clients who have hit hard times can go there and “shop for” food, clothing, and personal products completely free of charge. Their needs are met.

On a community level, Buist has incredible infrastructure and is able to route food from grocery stores and distribution centers to other ministries in the area, consequently feeding hundreds if not thousands more than they could with just this one center.

You may have donated cans to a food drive in the past, or even volunteered at a local food pantry, but until seeing what goes on in the background at Buist Community Assistance Center, I never knew anything really about how food moves around in America.

Have you ever found yourself consciously or subconsciously believing any of these myths?

Myth #1: There Isn’t Enough Food to go Around

kids learning about food pantry at Buist

You’ve heard the overpopulation myth that if we continue to reproduce at more than replacement rate, we won’t be able to feed the world with the land we have.

You may have also heard that we throw away 25-40% of all food produced in this country!

After seeing the massive amount of food that comes into Buist Community Assistance Center that would have been thrown away had they not been there to get it to people who have none, I can’t believe that there’s not enough to go around. There simply isn’t the right infrastructure everywhere to move the food to where it’s needed most!

If one item is damaged, a store might throw away an entire skid of food. This is a skid:

dairy donations at Buist Community Assistance Center food pantry

That’s a LOT of food!!

Buist goes to SpartanNash corporate twice a week to salvage food, as well as individual Family Fare stores and a number of other venues. They rescue a lot of day old bread, nearly expired and damaged items (that are still usable). Because they have dock height trucks they can take everything that a store has to donate. The stores never want a ministry to come and just take a tiny bit of what they have to offer. That’s too much orchestration. Buist has the warehouse space as well that many other ministries don’t.

For example, they go to Gordon Food Service once a week and get frozen foods, dairy items, miscellaneous produce, basically whatever the store decides it cannot use. That store gives to about 10 ministries, which is a commitment. That means they need an employee to sort and organize the items, as well as orchestrate communications with the ministries. I’m grateful for people running the stores who commit to avoiding waste and serving the community!

I wondered aloud if it would be easier for stores (and thus more efficient, perhaps saving more food), if there was a “hub” of sorts so they only had to coordinate with one center. It turns out that there is – Feeding America is kind of the hub that can serve all the others. Feeding America sells the food by the pound to ministries like Buist, which used to purchase food there but simply doesn’t need to anymore. It’s more efficient to salvage it themselves.

Buist somewhat has become a distribution hub as well, simply because they have the infrastructure and are very organized. If a store calls them, they have a driver volunteer ready to go. They show up with a smile on their face ready to accept whatever donation is available. It’s a ministry very blessed by God and the service of others!

Their connections in the community are vital to making this work, because the stores know there is somewhere that can handle the food they cannot (or will not) sell. So much food is saved from the trash and people are getting nourished who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford food.

fridge and freezer space at Buist food pantry

My little boys loved going in the cold, cold freezers. They thought it was hilarious! The quantity of food is overwhelming.

They have many freezers and refrigerators and even one area that is just a cooler with an air conditioner and insulation for produce that needs to stay about 50° — such as the 4,000 pounds of onions they received yesterday. They have become very good at knowing what they can use here for their clients and distributing the rest to 30 other ministries in the area. Almost nothing is wasted!

Buist has a few big trucks that are used to go salvage all this food. One of them gets used a few times a week to deliver meals to families downtown, and in the summer to glean from the farmers market and go directly to Guiding Light Mission and Degage Ministries serving the urban population. Families there can get immediate fresh produce from farmers in the area. Then the rest comes to Buist and other ministries. Shirley said she loves that the truck can be used for so many purposes!

Myth #2: Healthy Food is Not Available to the Poor

Buist Community Assistance Center gives healthy food to those in need

This may be unfortunately true at some pantries where only non-perishables are available, but at Buist Community Assistance Center, it couldn’t be farther from reality.

All that food coming from stores includes fresh produce, frozen meat, dairy products, spices, whole grain bread and organic items. Dents and spills aren’t discriminatory to just unhealthy food!

There is so much yogurt at all times that there’s never a limit on what clients may take, and if someone knows about freezing, they could have gotten a dozen+ pints of blueberries yesterday, along with a 5-pound bag of Brussels sprouts, ready-chopped cabbage that could be frozen, and plenty of carrots.

healthy food available at local food pantry

My favorite part about this pantry is that they do have so much fresh produce, which is a joy compared to many pantries where people often tell me they have trouble finding healthy food. The problem is always education. If someone doesn’t know how to use fresh produce, they won’t take it. Buist does an impressive job of attempting to put up instructions and recipes to help people out.

My kids were quiet overwhelmed with all the sugary cereal and day-old bakery cakes/breads/pastries that were available. For the little boys, their mouths were watering and the 3-year-old kept asking if he could buy some. My older kids who understand more about sugar and nutritious food were a bit dismayed and you could tell they wanted to see that kind of “food” thrown away.

However, as Shirley said, people make their own choices. We can’t force anyone to eat healthy, so putting out the donuts is not a moral choice. It’s just how it works. Part of treating clients with respect and dignity is allowing them to make independent choices just like the rest of the world.

client dignity experience at Buist

Clients get a true shopping experience so it doesn’t feel like a handout. There are carts, a conveyor belt and bagging area (salvaged from a Meijer that was being remodeled).

It inspires me to continue to encourage others to volunteer at their local centers and BE the voice who can teach those in need how to prepare healthy produce, how to read labels and choose healthy foods, how to make treats an occasional indulgence, and where to find recipes and resources to improve their own health.

That’s why, years ago, I shared this mission to give real food to those in need, including printable recipes that can be made (mostly) with non-perishables easily donated to food pantries.

Myth #3: Avoiding Waste is Easy

4,000 pounds of onions (that would have been thrown away).

2,000 pounds of cabbage (that needs to be eaten, ASAP).

6,000 pounds of cardboard…per week. To recycle or not to recycle?

These are the quantities that Buist Community Assistance Center deals with regularly and with grace. They are good stewards of alllll resources, even to the point of needing an entire volunteer to break down boxes to recycle. I can tell they take pride in generating very little waste (only waxed boxes that can’t be recycled and food that is rotting through no fault of their own).

In fact, they practically pluck from the landfill millions of pounds of food per year, from semi drivers who randomly show up in their parking lot with 3-and-a-half skids of 5-pound buckets of potato salad. “I’m looking for a food pantry. Is this the right place?” the driver queried. The semi drivers have to dispose of food that is rejected by stores. What are they supposed to do?

potato salad donation at food pantry - as much as you can take

Some items at the pantry are restricted – just a few apples per family, for example. But when you have that much potato salad, anyone can take as much as they can use! That’s what all the “as needed” signs mean.

Thank goodness for the power of word of mouth that has passed around the good things Buist is doing and the fact that they could send a hi-lo out to that semi and unload (and safely refrigerate) all that potato salad. No problem!

Because the Buist team is so very good at stewardship, they make it look easy, but it’s anything but.

freezer and cooler organization at Buist Community Assistance Center

It takes a special gift of organization to keep track of the many “reefers” (refrigerators), freezers and coolers in the building so that nothing is misplaced or wasted. It’s entirely different than a grocery store, which has the advantage of both barcodes and consistency.

It’s not a computer and scanners keeping track of incoming and outgoing food, but a whiteboard (and Shirley). They have no inventory control, because they get to take whatever comes their way on a given day from a store, plus any food donations that come in from canned good drives and private citizens. So nothing is ever the same – except that there is a need to fill and they will stand in and do it.

Everything that comes in or out of the center is weighed – even us!

Kids Cook Real Food kids weighing themselves at Buist Community Assistance Center

That’s 221 pounds of Kids Cook Real Food kids! Paul got to help when a donation came in – 67 pounds of dry goods to be sorted by the many willing volunteers (the oldest of whom is 91 – She comes twice a week and chats with clients and sorts food in her special chair).

Myth #4: People on Assistance are Lazy

getting a tour at Buist Community Assistance Center

Who are the poor among us? What are their faces, their stories?

Shirley tells us that many people in need are single mothers or older single adults who don’t have much coming in through Social Security. They often are working, but are still food-insecure. A family cannot live on 12 or $13 an hour! The center helps people find jobs and keep tabs on them and really motivates them and keeps them trying.

There are reasons beyond finances that initially get in the way of financial security. Many people have grown up without a support system and may not understand the value of hard work, or they have other hurdles to getting or keeping a job like a background that may not be savory for all employers. Shirley reminded my kids how blessed they were to have grandparents in the area, parent who teach them how to work hard and value themselves, and good nutrition and education growing up.

Every story is different. Sometimes just one disaster – car accident, medical need, theft, mistake – can create a situation where a family cannot survive financially anymore.

Buist has two case workers who make decisions about gravity of need by looking at a person’s income, State assistance, and expenses. Clients might be allowed to come once a month, twice a month or sometimes every week, based on need. About 140 client families a week come through and shop. They will often leave with a cart piled high with groceries. Sometimes Shirley wonders where they put it all, but it’s certainly filling a need.

There are families who might not have transportation to the center, and for those, volunteers fill boxes and are able to get the food to people who need them.

In most instances, the clients are trying their best to support their families or themselves, but they’ve been dealt some tough cards.

Myth #5: Food Insecurity is Rare

so much healthy food at local food pantry

We are used to being presented with all this fresh produce – and knowing we can take it home and eat it if we so desire. Not everyone is so lucky.

50,000 children in our metro Grand Rapids area are food insecure and almost 1.5 million people in Michigan alone. One quarter of those don’t qualify for state or federal assistance yet still don’t have enough nourishment in their homes. (source) Over 12% of American households experienced food insecurity at least once during 2016. (source)

Throughout the Midwest, Meijer sees that there are MANY families struggling to put food on their tables, which is why there is a huge emphasis on hunger relief through the entire LPGA Classic. The Classic is of course a world-class golf event with fun for families, but it is ever more important to be raising awareness of hungry neighbors and funding relief by stocking food pantry shelves.

The tournaments themselves have generated over $3.1 million for the Simply Give program, and the support of Meijer customers has resulted in over $37 million total since 2008 in Simply Give donations to food pantries across the Midwest. Even Oprah is getting involved!

I’m proud to partner with Meijer in this effort to raise awareness and even more proud that Buist Community Assistance Center is such a shining beacon of doing things right in all areas of stewardship, right here in my hometown!

What You Can Do to Help

kids listen about food donations at pantry

Shirley explains how volunteers purchase and put together bags of dry soup mix, many of which are sent to Kentucky where people are disastrously poor. Buist sends trucks there about 4 times per year with food in damaged boxes (with perfectly good inner packaging), clothing people here turn down, and expired medications. In that area, there are no thrift stores because everyone wears their clothing out, so they are so happy to see these donations come in. It’s just another example of the wisdom of distributing supplies where they are needed and not throwing anything away! 

  1. Volunteer! I came away from our day at Buist with the overwhelming sense of how many hours and how much energy it takes to be good stewards of these resources and help those who are stuck in a bad financial situation. My daughter is inspired to help – you can literally see the light in her eyes as she asked Shirley, “How old do you have to be to work here?” I think we’ll end up volunteering once a week this summer!
  2. Donate! Meijer’s Simply Give program makes it very easy to give while you’re doing your regular shopping June 12-17, 2018. I encourage you to also find food pantries and soup kitchens in your local area that are truly serving the poor and ask how you can best help. (Hint: Financial donations are often worth many times more than food donations, because what you would pay for a box of granola bars at the grocery store could become an entire skid of granola bars for pantries who know how to organize!)Milk and meat are the hardest to source for Buist. They hope that they are able to save clients enough money in a month that they can then go buy milk and meat (and/or cover utilities, etc.). Meat and diapers will be two things they hope to use the Simply Give donations for at Meijer.
  3. Attend! Round five of the LPGA tournament will carry on the tradition of ensuring hungry neighbors have food to eat through the Simply Give program – meaning proceeds from the tournament will be distributed around town to all the food pantry partners. What a win-win for the community!
  4. Pray! Shirley made it clear over and over again that this is God’s Ministry. When I would ask how something happened, she said God did it. God provides for his people. They appreciate your prayers so very much!

Financial donations are always accepted right at the center and put to amazing use. Even though the food itself is mostly sourced for free, there are definitely expenses to run a center like this, from the electricity for refrigerators and freezers to the paid staff, as well as supplies like grocery bags, produce bags, tape to close the bags, and more. They feed their volunteers lunch every day and there are about 80 volunteers total. There is maintenance on equipment and vehicles, and occasional new needs like more storage or a new truck, for example.

The checkbook at a ministry blessed by God is like the jug of oil in the Old Testament… It never runs empty. No matter what needs they fill and how much money goes out, the balance of the checkbook is the same every month. Not only always in the black, but literally the same, says Shirley, with a sparkle in her eye.

Miracles do happen even in the 21st century, and right here in our community of Grand Rapids. I am so blessed to have witnessed it with my kids!

Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

14 thoughts on “5 Myths You Probably Believe About Food Pantries (& the Poor)”

  1. Becca @ The Earthling's Handbook

    Great article! I love learning more about programs that make wise use of resources.

    You are absolutely right that we have enough food on this planet to feed all the people who are here now, and that all the food-scarcity problems are about distribution and/or waste. However, that doesn’t mean it a myth that “if we continue to reproduce at more than replacement rate, we won’t be able to feed the world with the land we have.” There is a point at which that could be true; it’s just that we don’t have that many people yet. We can “make room” for more people by distributing food more effectively, avoiding waste, and improving agricultural techniques so that we don’t poison the land, don’t let topsoil wash into the oceans, figure out how to grow in areas that aren’t naturally arable…but there are still limits on all of those things, so the human population can’t grow infinitely. I wrote about this back when there were only 6.8 billion of us: This Crowded World.

    1. True, not infinitely, with the technology we currently have. At this point in time I believe the social/financial ramifications of reproducing at so far below the replacement rate are going to “get” us as a civilization before lack of food will 🙁 Katie

      1. Becca @ The Earthling's Handbook

        The human race is NOT reproducing below replacement rate! Worldwide, the average woman has 2.5 children; replacement rate is 2. The United States is at about 1.86, which is not much below replacement rate and is likely to increase as the economy improves and the millennials get older–there’s a lot of evidence that they are delaying parenthood until later in life, and births to women over 40 are increasing. I’m not at all worried that we won’t have enough people; if we need more in the U.S., we can adjust immigration policies accordingly.

  2. Great article! Wish we had something that good in our area. You’ve inspired me to see if my kids can help at our local center this summer though – it doesn’t have storage, so just distributes once a month, but they often need help sorting everything that comes in into bags to distribute.

  3. Thank you for this article! I wanted to point out that there are some incredible food programs and pantries in the Grand Rapids area that are working to connect their clients with donated CSA shares, raised beds, and gardening skills to help them become less dependent on the pantries. Acess West Michigan does a great job in this arena.

    Happy to be part of a city that is working on decreasing food waste and feeding all!

  4. Great article. I have been thinking we need to volunteer somewhere this summer. I didn’t think about them. Nice and close

  5. Love this post! We live down in Texas, in a very poor, rural area. We have been involved with a local food pantry in varying circumstances. These days, we donate an average of 300 pounds of fresh produce weekly (mostly squash) from our crop that we cannot use ourselves, rather than selling it at market. We are a family of 7 living on a single income, and we’ve been on the receiving end in the past as well. Drought years are hard on us…we have to make sure the children and the livestock all have enough food and water. We always try to keep in mind that next year, if it doesn’t rain, we might very well be on the other side again. We are so thankful that we are able to give back right now. And, when my children pick all that produce to send off to strangers, it’s such a wonderful opportunity to show them how to show love for other people!

  6. We did donate through our local Meijer in Indianapolis to our local food bank! Our church also has a food pantry ministry but it’s all dry goods and cans. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Super common, Melinda – it takes a LOT to orchestrate fresh food! But even with dry goods, there can be healthy things – brown rice, dry or canned beans, canned tomatoes, dried onion, dried fruit and nuts…
      Thanks for donating! 🙂 Katie

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