The recent food distribution at Allen Elementary in Marion, IN was a tour de force of caring volunteers, diligent school staff, and powerhouse academics coming together to serve a community. Throughout the event, a seemingly endless stream of neighbors traversed our well-stocked tables of food and assembled their own carts of groceries to take home, while supplies were replenished by volunteers and observations were made by a team from More Than Food Consulting, who have been visiting schools supported by a grant from Morgan Stanley.
The team from More Than Food Consulting, Maisie Campbell, Program Manager, and Katie Martin, author of Reinventing Food Banks and Pantries: New Tools to End Hunger, investigated the importance of food recipients’ feelings of personal empowerment. Allowing neighbors to grab their own food rather than being handed pre-prepared bags affords them what Katie calls “choice with dignity,” and she explained that “when you give people the ability to choose their own food, it’s that [choice]…it’s empowering, more dignified. And it makes a difference.” When we set up distributions in a way that empowers our neighbors, they’re able to receive support without the burden of stigma or judgment.
Katie also discussed with us is the importance of language to food relief work. Labels are a way that we define our world, and when labels like impoverished or in need are stamped onto a person, it can start to feel like their unfortunate circumstance has become part of their identity. Therefore, it’s important that we adopt language that makes our neighbors feel secure and judgment-free throughout the process of getting support—this way, we ensure that we’re keeping in mind not just somebody’s need, but their dignity.
Among the school staff present for the distribution were Lori Brane, social worker, and Jo Messner, Allen’s principal, who both explained the vital role The Big Idea has in uniting the school with its community: Jo says “[we] feel that our parents feel that we care and that we are providing something for them that’s very important,” adding “this has been a godsend for us.” Lori shared that “our families truly love it, and our community truly loves it. It really benefits both.” The fact that such feelings have been observed by staffers with such close contact with both students and their families shows how noticeable the impact can be when events like this bring people together.
Of all the questions we asked during the event, the one with the most impressive answer was our last: “is this the kind of turnout you guys usually get?” This was asked in response to the sheer magnitude of neighbors who had streamed through to receive food, and the answer was a simple “yes.” The fact that so many people show up to the food distribution not just once but consistently is truly astounding, and we laud the efforts of this community for keeping up with such high volume. This shows that folks can truly rely on the help we provide, and it’s amazing to see how we can meet their needs.
This distribution was incredibly eye-opening, as it demonstrated the power of “choice with dignity” and language on enriching our relief efforts. We walked away with a newfound appreciation for how many people can rely upon our services, as well as the impact of transformative language on our conscience.