Client-choice food pantry model reduces food waste and improves food distribution

Modifying emergency food distribution sites to include a client-choice approach allows clients the opportunity to select what their family will use.

In his 2004 book, Charity Food Programs That Can End Hunger in America, the late John Arnold outlines a dozen or so tools that an agency or community can adopt to reach the goal of addressing hunger. One of the tools Arnold highlights is among the most revolutionary reforms to the U.S. food pantry system, the client-choice pantry model.

The grassroots concept of client-choice pantries was originally conceived in 1994 by Arnold when he worked for the Second Harvest Gleaners Food Bank of West Michigan and with Michigan State University Extension educators Dianne Novak and Nancy Ullrey. Together they developed a program called Waste Not Want Not that applied the client-choice approach to food pantries in Kent County, Michigan.

Client-choice pantries use a model of emergency food distribution that allows clients the opportunity to select their own food much like they would in a grocery store. This allows clients the chance to choose from a wide variety of foods to meet their own personal dietary needs and tastes. Alternatively, nonclient-choice food pantries provide clients with boxes or bags of pre-determined food with no opportunity to exchange or select items of their own. This approach results in an increased amount of food waste, increased shelf stocking time, a waste of food resources, and an increased burden on the environment.

As reported by the Gleaners Community Food Bank in Detroit, additional advantages for the client-choice model include:

  • A sense of dignity for clients and their families
  • Higher satisfaction with the food they are able to choose
  • Less waste and ultimately less cost of food provided
  • Greater opportunities for volunteer and clients to interact; more social, supportive relationship opportunities

In a recent announcement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, MSU Extension educators will be working on a federal research grant to determine the impact on community food insecurity when food policy councils, client-choice food pantries, and nutrition education are used to strengthen community food systems.

In my role with MSU Extension, I will assist four rural Michigan communities that have a high prevalence of food insecurity in the development of a food policy council. I will also help them utilize the client-choice food pantry model along with other nutrition education.

The work MSU Extension will be doing in Michigan will be compiled with similar work being done by partnering Extension services in Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, South Dakota, and Nebraska. This will be a five-year research project to develop a best practice model that can be replicated in rural communities throughout the nation.

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