Pantry to bureaucracy

Posted June 14, 2011, at 6:23 p.m.

A clash between a homegrown food pantry in Millinocket and the nonprofit organization that supplies it and many other food pantries reveals some common misunderstandings about the work of helping those in need. Chief among them is that good intentions are enough to help people.

Good Shepherd Food-Bank, based in Auburn, has been supplying food pantries and hungry Mainers directly for 30 years. This year, it expects to distribute over 12 million pounds of food to 600-plus groups across Maine.

In recent months, Good Shepherd suspended its service to a food pantry in Millinocket, an area hard-hit by closing paper mills. The director of the local food pantry, who is also a Christian pastor, was accused of tying distribution of the food to proselytizing about his faith. The pastor denies the charge, and Good Shepherd notes that it, too, is a faith-based organization.

During a recent meeting with the Bangor Daily News, Good Shepherd officials did not want to discuss the specifics, but said only that the Millinocket food pantry was out of compliance with Good Shepherd’s rules, and that it can reapply to be included among the pantries served. Apparently, there are more points of contention between Good Shepherd and the Millinocket pantry, as well, but those are best left to the parties to work out privately.

But part of the conflict may be traced to a change in the way society manages charity. For good reasons, we have institutionalized much of our giving.

Older Mainers will relate how 50 years ago, the community would quietly step in to help a family in need. Men might head to the woods and shoot a deer and deliver the meat to the family. Women would scour their root cellars and cupboards, someone with a wood lot would cut some firewood and so on.

But memories of such homegrown charity probably are distorted by the warm and fuzzy feelings that accompany them. Ultimately, such an approach is inefficient. If the family in need doesn’t have a large freezer, the deer meat would spoil. If the wood were not delivered in time to season, it couldn’t be used to heat the house.

And what about the family or individual who is too ornery, too dirty and smelly to warrant community goodwill? Under the old model, that family would suffer.

The old-fashioned version relies on a soft heart, hard work and good intentions. The modern version relies on a professional, business-like approach that raises funds from corporate donors, makes strategic decisions based on maximizing purchases and distribution and insists on compliance with rules that promote consistency and access.

The inner workings of Good Shepherd, with its large industrial warehouses and corporate structure, do not lend themselves to an episode of the TV show The Waltons. But its approach to helping probably is the most effective in helping thousands of hungry Mainers.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/06/14/opinion/pantry-to-bureaucracy/ printed on September 23, 2014