Serving Good Food to Poor People Makes Good Sense

Columnist Julie Gunlock has taken out after dining rooms for the homeless that serve good food. This, she says, shows that some of the charitable organizations that are receiving our taxpayer dollars don’t need them.

The trigger for this rant was Michelle Obama’s visit to Miriam’s Kitchen. As the Washington Post reported, she served mushroom risotto. The reporter was told that “if anyone brings us donuts, Steve [the chef] throws them away. It is not good for our guests…. Steve wants our guests to have the same experience as if they were paying $30 for a meal.”

Gunlock twists this to mean that Miriam’s Kitchen is–or wants to become–a place where poor people can get $30 meals for free. Of course, it means nothing of the sort.

She’s already taken a lot of justifiable flak. But I want to weigh in because there are larger issues here than one writer’s willful distortions.

One issue, of course, is the view that dining rooms and food pantries should feed poor people as cheaply as possible. After all, shouldn’t they stretch their resources by serving the lowest-cost foods they can, including whatever is donated?

There’s certainly a cost issue here. But it’s not as simple as the cost of mushroom risotto versus hot dogs and Velveeta. As everyone should know by now, there are significant long-term social and economic costs associated with unhealthful diets–obesity, related chronic health problems, unemployment, etc. So cutting corners on food assistance will ratchet up the costs of other services.

Another issue is how poor people feel when they’re fed. Gunlock apparently thinks they should be satisfied with whatever they get. But, like the rest of us, they recognize that the quality of what they’re offered and how it’s served reflects a level of care. This is very important for organizations like Miriam’s Kitchen.

Because Miriam’s Kitchen does more than serve meals. It also offers case management services and a program that brings clients into a supportive, therapeutic community. Serving good-tasting, nutritious meals in a dignified setting builds trust so that clients will be open to receiving these other services.

Miriam’s Kitchen isn’t the only local food source for poor people that attends to quality rather than just trying to fill them up. For example, So Others Might Eat (SOME) serves vegetables with every meal and fresh fruit to snack on later. It too gives priority to serving clients “with dignity and respect,” noting that its dining rooms are often a gateway to the other services it provides.

Bread for the City also integrates a feeding program with a range of other services. Last year, it launched a multi-pronged nutrition initiative, including an improved nutrition profile for the free groceries it distributes.

Bread is one of the largest partners of the Capital Area Food Bank–a major food source for nonprofits in the Washington metro area. So when Bread told CAFB what new items it wanted, CAFB started stocking them. Now other CAFB member agencies purchase them too.

Which leads me to my final point. Dining rooms and food pantries can–and do–influence what they’re able to serve. If they let it be known that they won’t serve donuts, then people who bring donuts will stop.

Some may not bring anything else because they just want to dispose of stale donuts–and take a tax deduction. But others will respond with donations that meet the organization’s guidelines. Look at what Chef Steve says about how he transformed his kitchen.

If enough charitable feeding programs let their food banks know that they want to purchase healthier products, they’re likely to get them. And who knows? If enough food banks start stocking a healthier mix of products, they might have some impact on the entire food supply chain.


4 Responses to Serving Good Food to Poor People Makes Good Sense

  1. uspoverty says:

    We wrote about this today too:

    Also, I linked to your blog yesterday in a round-up of the poverty blogosphere.

  2. kathrynbaer says:

    Thanks, Leigh. I saw your posting and took the occasion to comment before I was aware that you already knew about mine. Thanks also for the round-up. It introduced me to a couple of blogs I didn’t know.

  3. Greg Bloom says:

    Kathryn, thanks for pointing out the similarity between the gateway function of comprehensive service models (i.e. Bread for the City clients come to us for food, and then find an array of other services like nutrition counseling) and food supply chains. Just like food assistance is the entry point by which many people access our continuum of services, food pantries are a critical gateway through which community-level changes can be encouraged.

    The simple question of “how can we help hungry people eat?” is hopelessly reductive. Instead we should try to ask how to improve various parts of the chain in a way that’s as healthful and impactful as possible, up and down the line. You do a great job of pointing to ways forward here on this blog.

  4. […] of weeks back to a story called Let Them Eat Arugula, there’s been considerable backlash in the blogosphere. I like the way Kathryn Baer, Poverty and Policy blogger, puts it:  As everyone […]

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