When I first walked into the Wallingford Food Bank, I felt like I am in a grocery store. The room is filled up with shelves of canned tomatoes, milk, fresh produce, frozen meat, and pastries. At the very front of the food bank, there is a long table with all kinds of groceries on it for today’s participants to pick up.
My first day started with working on the line. On that day, my supervisor only gave me one instruction: if the participants ask for anything not on the line but we have it in storage, find it for them. I said sure, but at that time I did not understand its significance. The first participant came in, looked at the line, and asked if we have fresh milk. Another volunteer answered it: we have whole milk, low fat, and shelf-stable milk. Which one would you like?
I soon noticed that the experienced volunteers are very good at asking questions back. Spicy tuna or brown rice veggie sushi? Do you want crunchy peanut butter or the smooth one? Some more banana? Sometimes they even ask these questions before the participants ask for anything. Once a middle-aged man came in and looked hesitant in front of a box of rice sticks. I asked him if he would prefer instant noodles, and he was very surprised, “Sure, my son loves it, thank you so much!”
I would often hear participants comment, “You guys make the food bank a grocery store!” And I started to realize being a “grocery store” requires much more than the grocery store shelves in the bank. In grocery stores, everyone has the power to make decisions. If I want lemon curd, I can just get lemon curd instead of blackberry jelly. If I want to have some fresh tomatoes instead of diced tomatoes today, I can have it. We are the decision makers.
In the food bank, on the other hand, the volunteers are the decision makers. They put on tags on the food like “one diary per household”, decide what kinds of vegetables they want to put on the line today, and they get moral benefits for “serving the community”. The participants in the food bank are rarely the decision makers in their lives. They have no power to decide where to live or whether they have a place to live. Being deprived of decision-making power can be detrimental to their self-esteem and mental health. When they come in, as they look at the volunteers and the shelves behind them, a lot of them told us that they are too scared to ask for the food they want as if they are making unreasonable requests. By giving the choices back to the participants, the food bank not only gives them the food they prefer but also the power they deserve.
Food banks do not solve the fundamental social problems that make people foodless, and only giving them food one a week does not help anyone to escape from the poverty trap. This is just unproven personal opinion, but I think giving power back is a way to distort the existing social hierarchy, and even though no one knows the exact impact of it, the responses I get in the food bank tell me it might be positive.