Changes in the Haven's Food Shelf

Submitted 2 years ago

At the end of October, the Haven made some significant changes to the way it operates its Food Shelf. The changes were based on two goals: 1) to provide more food to those who need it and 2) to offer more choice to people in selecting the food they need for their households. But before explaining the changes, let’s review the basics:

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The Haven’s Food Shelf serves approximately 1,300 households each month. There are no income or other requirements for people to access the Food Shelf—community members must simply be in need of food. Our experience is that asking for help or admitting that you need food can be embarrassing, and that it is not something that people take lightly or are eager to do. Visitors may visit the Food Shelf one time per calendar month.

The experience of going to the Food Shelf is designed to be as much like a regular shopping experience as possible. Visitors are paired with a Haven volunteer, who walks them through the Food Shelf with a grocery cart and helps them get what they need. We have staples on hand at all times (spaghetti sauce, pasta, tuna, peanut butter, etc.), as well as fresh fruits and vegetables, bread, meats, cheese, eggs, personal care items, and more.

The Haven gives over $2 million in food every year to community members in need. Most of the food is donated by local businesses, organizations, and individuals. The Haven spends about $220,000 purchasing food, which happens when we need to re-stock the staple items that are in high demand.

Now for the changes: previously, there were limits on the number of items Food Shelf visitors could take. For example, families were permitted to take up to two jars of spaghetti sauce and an individual could have one jar. This was based on historical assumptions about how much food is needed for one week. Now, in an effort to offer more food and more flexibility, both individuals and families may take as much as they need, up to five of each item. They may choose how much or how little of something they need. Families with children may decide they need three jars of peanut butter and four cans of tuna. An individual may need just one jar of peanut butter and two cans of tuna. People take what they need and what they will use, to fill in the gaps in their access to food. Over time we will learn what is most useful, and make adjustments as benefits the most people.

A visit to the Greater Boston Foodbank and Boston Medical Center’s Preventative Food Pantry influenced the future of the Food Shelf at the Haven. Heading into those conversations, Haven staff had some idea about how they wanted to change the Food Shelf. But when a representative of the Foodbank posed a simple question, their perspective began to shift. “Why do you have any limits at all?” In everything else we do at the Haven, we look to the guest or visitor to tell us what they need. Why weren’t we doing that with the Food Shelf? Our new approach in the Food Shelf is more in alignment and consistent with the approach we take in our other programs and services.

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