I got to Philly in the fall of 1986 as a volunteer with the Vincentian Service Corps in East Germantown. One of my jobs was to assist clients who came to the food cupboard at Immaculate Conception Church for a bag of groceries. We packed those bags with standard, shelf-stable stuff: peanut butter and jelly, tuna, canned veggies, soups, bottled pasta sauce. We didn’t have the facilities to store anything perishable, and neither did most food pantries at the time. So no one got fresh staples like bread, milk, eggs or meat.
There have been times when I considered getting help from a food cupboard. But I realized that some of what I was likely to get would have been of no use to us. No one in the family liked tuna or canned vegetables or Chef Boyardee meals, another recurring item. What was the point of getting stuff we didn’t like?
There’s a strain of thinking in some quarters that truly hungry people will eat anything. But is that fair, really? Do poor people have to set aside their dislikes just because they’re getting food for free? And is a steady diet of preserved food good for anyone?
We need a new model for getting good food to needy people. Philabundance does tremendous work in this regard, as do some sit-down meal programs. But overall, it’s too easy to fill a bag with canned soup, dry pasta, and instant oatmeal and think you’ve done all you can.
What about five or 10 or more regional pantries with freezers and refrigerator cases whose space can be shared by several organizations? How about letting people in need wander the aisles and choose what they need, rather than prepacking a bag and hoping for the best?
Lots of details to work out, I know — money, staffing, and more. But we should try. We have the means to do better for people who are struggling.