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Client-Choice Model Lessens Stigma, Increases Options for Pantry Customers

October 27, 2008

For New Yorkers who cannot afford enough food, being forced to rely on food pantries often means structuring their meals around the contents of a pre-packaged pantry bag, rather than on food that healthy and culturally appropriate. The pre-packaged pantry model takes away the customer’s ability to choose and can result in wasted food if customers do not use the contents of the bag, which often includes items as desirable as pie filling or canned liver.

Now, a relatively new model food pantry model is returning some of that power of choice to customers of several pantries across the city. Client choice or “supermarket-style” pantries allow customers to self select items as they would in a grocery store, ensuring that clients retain the dignity of choice, while eliminating food waste by encouraging customers to take those items which their families can use.

The client-choice model was first introduced in 1993 at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger here in New York City. Executive Director Doreen Wohl created the model in order to better serve customers by validating their individual needs. Particularly for customers with diabetes or other diet restrictions, client-choice can mean the difference between taking home a bag of food that will exacerbate their condition, or a selection of items that will help them improve and maintain their health. Client choice also offers a far more culturally sensitive method of food distribution, reinstating the customer’s ability to select the food they know how to prepare.

A fundamental restructuring of the relationship between customers and pantries lies at the core of the client choice mode, which directly challenges the idea that clients should merely accept what they are given. “It’s about trust,” says Wohl. “We trust in the customer and the knowledge they bring to us about their diets, their illness and their family background.”

CAMBA’s Beyond Hunger Emergency Food Pantry is the latest City pantry to convert to client choice after completing the transition this summer. “It’s a more empowering model of helping people get through a food emergency,” says Janet Miller, CAMBA’s director of Food Programs. Client choice continues to gain support at pantries across the country, especially as resources wear thin and the threat of waste becomes even more detrimental to daily operations.

For more information about client choice pantries visit the Food Program page at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger.

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