MSV's Commitment to Dignity in the Food Distribution Process

MSV's Commitment to Dignity in the Food Distribution Process

Connecting Communities | June 2020

St. Vincent de Paul famously said, “It is not enough to give soup and bread.” With help from our generous friends and supporters, a strong showing from new volunteers, and forward-thinking staff, MSV has not only been able to keep both of our food pantries open, we have retained the ability to uphold the dignity of our clients through the food distribution process by any means necessary.

Our commitment to client dignity pre-COVID-19 was most clearly exemplified in the client-choice model both food pantries had been operating under for the past several years. Client-choice models have been proven effective as a tool to reduce food waste and provide an element of choice for shoppers. “Clients would come in, be paired with a personal shopper, and get to navigate the shelves, which were set up just like any grocery store,” explained Marillac Food Pantry Supervisor, Kathleen Callahan. “The aim was to mimic the shopping experience and provide an element of choice and control.”

Under current conditions there are two major hurdles in our effort to maintain those values of client choice and control: safely distributing food and doing so with a limited volunteer base. Any new distribution process would have to incorporate social distancing and increased sanitization measures. A majority of our long-term volunteer base is made up of adults who are 65 and older, adding to the challenges as that core of volunteer support was asked to stay at home for their own safety.

Even with these major concerns, dignity was still at the heart of all conversations regarding how to transition to meet these new conditions. MSV’s commitment to Vincentian values means that service should be holistic; body, mind, and spirit must be cared for.

“You are the servant of the poor.” -St. Vincent de Paul

On March 16, 2020, the food pantry switched from client-choice model to prepackaged boxes of food, adjusting the service model to allow each guest to choose what to keep from each box, and what to leave in our food stores for future guests. Instead of walking down the aisles, clients enter the pantry one by one in order to maintain appropriate social distance. A volunteer welcomes them, presents them with two fully packed boxes, one with dried goods and one with produce. The volunteer then opens each sizable box and presents every food item to the client, letting the client decide whether to keep the food inside.

To cope with the loss of regular volunteers, calls for help were put out through every available channel. This included social media, volunteer websites, and help from elected officials. "We were so fortunate to have had a flood of responses to our call for assistance. Many people who joined us for the very first time have been making a regular weekly (or more frequent) commitment." said MSV Volunteer Manager, Colleen Mulcrone. "Our volunteers recognize that people are hurting in very deep and often unexpected ways, and they want to help by sharing the time that their own altered schedules have afforded them."

These changes were sudden, but staff did their best to ease clients into the transition. As Callahan explains it, “In the beginning it was a mix of people being really glad that we were still open and confusion because clients didn’t know we would be drastically changing things. That took a little bit of effort and conversation. Going out and briefing folks on what to expect went a long way and now we are seeing people who have been through it and know what to expect. As weeks progressed and other food pantries have been shutting down, people were really grateful that we were still open.”

Food pantry volunteer, Molly Wolfe, has noticed the impact that this dignity-focused approach has had as well, “Everyone is so grateful. People are very scared right now and the way Marillac St. Vincent designed this process has built a lot of trust. People are very appreciative.”

The goal of the pantry has always been to go above merely passing out food. The pantries exist to serve the community; mind, body, and spirit. As many households in the neighborhood suffer loss of income and as they face the threat of infection, we remain; ready to serve and to uphold the dignity of all.

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