“There’s a difference between criminals and crooks. Crooks steal. Criminals blow some guy’s brains out. I’m a crook.” – Ronald Biggs
“If a day comes when we don’t have any volunteers, all we have to do is put a nail in the wall and hang up the key. The shoppers will let themselves in the pantry, shop, and lock the door behind them.”
I always take pride in saying the Good Neighbor Food Pantry didn’t even need volunteers.
Of course, this was an exaggeration. But it applied to many of our regular shoppers who knew the rules, knew how much food they were allowed to take, and respected the system. It did not, however, apply to all of the shoppers nor did it apply to all the volunteers. We had several shoppers and volunteers who simply could not live with the three-day supply of food rule.
Pantries, by their nature, are overrun with rules. They are layered with rules. The rules have rules. There are more rules than cans of food in food pantries.
First, the Food Bank has rules: what kind of food we can serve and to whom, what the pantry should look like and how clean it should be, who gets the food.
Shelving is to be six inches away from the walls.
The bottom shelf of each unit is to be six inches off the floor.
The USDA food must be displayed.
Pantry volunteers receive safe food handling training at least once every five years.
The pantry has to comply with food safety standards.
Pantries are not allowed to barter food with other agencies.
Pantries are not allowed to give food to other agencies.
All the food is to be distributed to specifically designated needy persons.
The Hunger Prevention Nutrition Assistance Program has a whole other selection of rules, guidelines focusing on how much food we should serve and what its nutritional value should be.
Pantries are expected to offer fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain breads, and proteins.
Pantries are expected to support the MyPlate guideline on food selection.
Pantries are expected to serve the shoppers with dignity.
Pantries are required to serve a minimum of a three-day supply of food to recipients.
Pantries may never discriminate against anyone in the provision of service to the hungry.
And, of course, in the Good Neighbor Food Pantry, the building committee was not to be outdone by anyone else. The building committee had its own list of rules:
The building committee was concerned with the hours we could be in the building.
The building committee was concerned with which days of the week we could be in the building.
The building committee was concerned with how many chairs could be in the hallway.
The building committee was concerned about what products we could have in the hallway.
The building committee was concerned with when and where we could be in the parking lot.
The building committee was concerned with when the produce could come into the building and how long it could stay.
The building committee was concerned with the cardboard.
Finally, the rabbis, pastors, and priests of the Woodstock Interfaith Council liked to chime in when I got too enthusiastic and raised to much money or fed too many people.
The important thing was to refrain from serving the unworthy hungry.
I divided the whole crowd into four groups. The first group I jokingly referred to as the Hot Doggers. These people liked to make the rules whether or not they had the authority. And, if they didn’t have the authority to make the rules, who cared? “Scream loud enough and you’ll be heard” seemed to be the motto.
The second group I sadly referred to as the followers. These were the shoppers and volunteers who had trouble dealing with the layers and layers of rules. At one point in the timeline of the pantry, (leading up to and during the Inquisition), people asked each other “what are today’s rules” as the building committee grappled with how many chairs we could have in the hallway for the shoppers, whether or not we could offer food in the hallway, and whether or we could offer diapers or pet food.
This group (the followers) was really in a bad place during some of the uncertain times in the pantry. They needed the food and they were voiceless. Absolutely no one cared what their needs were. It was hardest on those with mental and emotional issues.
One shopper summed it all up on several Wednesdays when she ran through the parking lot yelling “Thurman Greco is a fucking asshole!” at the top of her lungs.
And, finally, the third group was the onlookers. These were the people who lived in the community, lifted not one finger to help, and gave not one penny of support. Their claim to fame was their criticism of all the people who came to the pantry to shop or work and their criticism of everything that happened to the pantry even though they had never been to the place and knew nothing about what was going on.
It finally boiled down to respect. A fourth group was made up of shoppers and volunteers who didn’t care a whit about the rules, what was good for the pantry, what was expected of them, or anything else. All they knew was there was a lot of food finally coming through the place and they wanted it.
No matter what.
One such shopper was a beautiful young woman with two gorgeous daughters who had been coming to the pantry for years. She brought her children, as infants, with her every time she visited the pantry. The children became toddlers, then young children. The oldest daughter became ten. Gorgeous children. One day I realized she was teaching them to steal food.
She came into the crowded room with her two children who immediately scattered to different parts of the room and began to put food in the little bags. There was absolutely no way a person could follow what these three were doing. Final analysis required that an extra volunteer come into the already overcrowded room and supervise the children.
We had a cluster of shoppers who liked to come right at pantry closing time when we were distracted and under pressure with closing activities. Some came in the hope of taking extra produce home with them. Others came expecting to grab an extra can or two of some favorite product.
“You’re only allowed to take one can from that shelf, Sara.”
“Sorry. I forgot.”
One volunteer managed to squirrel away fifteen frozen pizzas.
One shopper, a young man with beautiful, shoulder length, auburn hair, tried to make off with ten bags of dried black beans.
“Put the beans back. We need to have enough bags for everyone. We won’t have enough if you guys take more than your share.”
One volunteer brazenly went into the storeroom and carried out two large boxes of food she felt was owed to her simply because she was a volunteer.
“Dana, that food is for the take outs. You can’t take it.”
“Yes I can. I want it and you can’t stop me.”
“Dana, you can’t return here anymore.”
Then, we had one volunteer who went over to the items of dignity closet one afternoon and stuffed her pockets.
“Jean, what are you doing with all these items? We barely have enough to pass out to our shoppers.”
“These are for my friends.”
“Well, you can’t take them. Your friends aren’t signed in and we need these items for our registered shoppers. You know the rules. You’ve been working here a long time.”
One volunteer went around to area grocery stores and picked up foods for the Good Neighbor Food Pantry. Some of this food actually made it to the pantry. However, a portion of it was diverted to this volunteer’s friends and neighbors. The argument could be made that she distributed the food to people who needed it. That’s all well and good. However, she led the grocers to believe she was taking the food to the pantry to distribute to the hungry. She was being dishonest with the grocers who were entrusting the food to her. This reflected poorly on our pantry, I felt, as well as on all other pantries.
Finally, we had our mystery shoppers. Almost every week or two we came into the pantry to find that food had been removed from the shelves over the weekend. This was true in both the pantry and the storeroom.
Considering how many people went through the pantry, the thefts were very few.
As a pantry coordinator, I tried to convince everyone that the food on the shelves in a pantry is not there for the entertainment and amusement of disrespectful volunteers. Neither is it on the shelves for shoppers to take regardless of the rules.
Rather, the food belongs to the State of New York. It is only when it is put in one’s shopping bag after the person is signed in at the reception table that it becomes the property of the shopper.
The Food Bank and the Hunger Prevention Nutrition Assistance Program people had definite guidelines about how much food could be taken by both shoppers and volunteers alike. These rules were known by everyone.
Conclusion: Being a thief is a genetic trait.