Food Pantry Misunderstandings

Instructor’s Note: Over the course of a semester, each student taking my course in "Ethnographic Methods" (ANTH/SOCL345) does an in-depth individual project. At first, students work on identifying interesting ethnographic settings and questions. Through this exercise they learn how to be more skilled participant-observers, with eyes and ears open to important details that are usually overlooked when they are either only participants or only observers. Students start the semester by describing a potential field site based on initial observations. Then they conduct longer and more in-depth participant-observation and write notes about what they experience. They then try their hand at analyzing their data using a variety of techniques and write reports emerging from these analyses. For the assignment described below, students analyzed an aspect of language use that they encountered at their field site. Their analysis should help illuminate important cultural values that might otherwise be invisible.

Field Site and Project Description

Field Site: Fruits of the Earth Food Pantry
(The name of this field site has been changed to protect identities of workers and clients)

Field Project: Fruits of the Earth uses the “Client Choice” model of service delivery that is relevant to my research question. It also offers “Navigator Services” to identify client needs and provide referrals to community agencies and other resources, with an overall goal of helping clients return to self-sufficiency. The success of this model of emergency food distribution and an ethnographic understanding of how it really works—as viewed from the perspective of food pantry clients and workers and by an anthropologist—is the subject of my research project.

Fruits of the Earth is designed with three main functional areas: check-in (where clients are privately interviewed to determine income, eligibility, and the amount of food they are qualified to receive), the warehouse, and the “store” where food is selected and “purchased.” In the participant observation I’ve conducted thus far, it is apparent that client-worker interaction takes place only in the check-in and store areas, with the vast majority of that taking place within the shopping area. Therefore, future participant observation at Fruits of the Earth will involve only the check-in and store areas. The warehouse is not relevant to my study, as it is not an area where clients interact with workers. Furthermore, my initial observations have revealed that workers regularly gather in the check-in area at the end of their shift to talk, eat, and even to share in closing “rituals” that have developed over time. These rituals include celebrating birthdays, and having everyone choose one or more pieces of chocolate candy from a bag to which they all contributed. The importance of the check-in area to workers was an unexpected finding. But it is clear that these gatherings and rituals have served to bond the “Thursday Night Crew.” Even the chocolate itself creates bonds, such as when a worker shared a vacation memory upon selecting a piece that was left on their pillow by a hotel maid.

Client visits to Fruits of the Earth are by appointment only. Clients call ahead to set up a day and time to conduct their initial intake appointment, after which they may call to arrange up to six shopping visits per year. Observation of the store itself will be conducted by volunteering at the check-out registers near the front of the store and by stocking shelves throughout the store. Rotating between these locations allows me to interact with both clients and workers (at the registers), and allows observation of clients as they shop (while stocking). Viewing the interactions between food pantry workers and clients through participant observation offers critical insight towards answering my research question.

One potential barrier I have identified is that workers know about my background as a Registered Dietitian. In participant observation sessions so far, workers have made a few comments about clients’ food choices as they shop. For example, clients choosing large amounts of bakery items, cakes, cookies, etc., may be viewed negatively by workers. My presence as a nutrition professional, who is presumed to eat healthy all the time, may influence worker comments and/or may encourage them to verbalize negative judgments more readily. It may also influence the types of foods workers suggest to clients who are under their weight limit when they go back to choose more food. If I am present, workers may discourage, or not even mention, the option of choosing less-healthy categories of food. These actions and comments on the part of workers have the potential of limiting client choice in food selection and/or may create the perception of a less welcoming atmosphere. Either of these outcomes is undesirable as it could negatively influence client perceptions of the food pantry and its services. I have noted in my observations, however, that this conflict between workers regarding healthy vs. unhealthy foods seems to be one that is pre-existing and ongoing, as summed up by one worker who stated, “We’re not all on the same page as far as bakery items.”

Finally, this research project will include focused analysis of one crucial food pantry item: the signs posted throughout the food pantry. There seems to exist an interesting contradiction in the messages being conveyed by these signs. For example, many “limit” signs are posted (i.e., restricting the number of particular items that could be taken), and there are numerous reminders to take “reasonable amounts of food.” Conversely, other signs list the food categories that do not “count” towards a client’s weight limit (i.e., take all you want). And still others announce short-term exceptions to the usual limits (such as those allowing clients to take unlimited amounts of pork sausage and venison because the pantry had an unexpected abundance of these items). This research project will explore the role of signage in shaping client and worker behaviors and perceptions.

Food Pantry Visit Log

Met with a Member of the Management:

  • Discussed Dr. Ruby Payne, “Bridges out of Poverty” on hidden rules for each class. Food pantry clients are usually from poverty class, while food pantry workers are usually middle class. Understanding values of each class helps explain questions that pantry workers have, such as “how can they get their nails done but they can’t buy food,” or “how come their car is better than mine?”

  • Payne’s Getting Ahead seminars are being offered in our county. County has “embraced” this concept. People in the class are “investigators” and they investigate their barriers to getting out of poverty. Class “gets to the core of who people are.” Need to help them change to a middle-class focus.

  • Suggests go online for more info. The “Aha! Process”

  • Noticed that rules are photocopied and taped to cupboard door in food pantry kitchenette

Worked Check-Out Station:

  • Donated foods placed on top of shelves. Recent food drive for tuna.

  • New items noted tonight: Osmolite tube feeding formula, toothbrushes, gerbil food, Valentines cookie dough and candies, Zingerman’s bread

  • Workers dressed casually for the work (jeans, sweaters, sweatshirts). Stockers had aprons.

  • Chatted casually about family, friends, and lives between customers. Appear to know each other well.

  • Weighed cart, separated foods and put those that don’t count on counter scale (to subtract). Kept track of both Out the Door (OTD) weight and weight of foods that count.

  • Recorded and checked amounts of limited foods that were taken (peanut butter, jelly, meat, detergent, toilet paper, tuna, canned meat meals, frozen meat, birthday bags, etc.)

  • Clients served: three young white women, three middle-aged white women, two young white couples, one middle-aged white man. Most dressed casually (jeans) but neat and clean; one woman in black dress pants and black-and-white plaid dress coat looking like she came from work. Smiling. A few looking a bit confused. Two of the women were pregnant.

  • Workers advised clients they could take more food, made suggestions (usually canned goods which are heavier), and even went shopping in the pantry with the client. When making suggestions, always asked, “Do you like XYZ?”


  • Foods that “count” or “don’t count”

  • What counts vs doesn’t count changes based on supply. Tonight the following foods did not count: frozen venison, frozen chicken leg quarters, frozen pork sausage patties. Signs at check-out as reminders.

  • Powdered milk does not count, but boxed milk does count. Disagreement by worker over this rule. “If one form of milk doesn’t count, then the other forms shouldn’t, either.”

  • OTD (out the door) weight

  • Weight

  • Signs “please take a reasonable amount of food for your family” or “Please take a reasonable amount of food”

  • Sign “Toiletry items. Please share with others”

  • Sign “Cleaning products limit 2”

  • “Limit” signs: limit 1, 1 bag or 6 cans per family (pet food), 1 package diapers per baby, 2 bottles

  • Sign “Please take one toothbrush per family member. We will be happy to replace it in 6 months.”

Staff Comments:

  • “I used to follow all the rules.” Said with a wink. Worker let a client have about 2 extra pounds of food when her basket was over the weight limit.

Client Comments:

  • Two of the young women said they lived in a “house with other girls.” They took significantly less food than they were allowed. Workers suggested repeatedly that they take more items, but they repeated they did not need them, already had them at home, or could not store them.

  • One of the young women confused about rules. Seemed to panic when she thought she had to pay for bakery items. “Does this cost money?” Took a lot of cakes and cupcakes, and was concerned about how they would be packed. When told she could keep shopping and get more food, kept saying, “This is all I need.”

  • One young man asked about choosing bakery items. “How much is a reasonable amount to take?”

Paper Plates:

  • Clients are asked to write on paper plates: How has the recession affected you? Why did you come to the food pantry? What would happen if the food help you receive was cut? What do you have to say about hunger? Plates are collected and sent to state legislators when the state budget is being developed.

  • “I came here hat in hand, feeling very low. I was met with a smile and open heart and listening ear. This food has helped us avoid the choice of food or medicine. Without this blessing we would not just be hungry but I think we would have fallen between the cracks of life. Thank you. Bless you.”

  • “No work. Helps me to keep food in my belly. Have health issues & cannot work @ this time. Thank God every time I came here. Thanks so much.”

  • “If it wasn’t for the generosity of the food pantry and the incredibly kind people who work here, we would go many weeks without food. God bless the food bank & its workers!”

  • A child drew a picture of a cat, labeled “nap.”

Language Analysis

For this assignment, I will investigate an aspect of language use at Fruit of the Earth Food Pantry that illuminates cultural values: the language of signs that restrict what clients can take. Clients (and new volunteers like myself) have to learn the specific lingo and the values that they represent when we enter this new cultural space.

Conversations between workers and clients at the Fruits of the Earth Food Pantry take place in one of two locations: at the check-in area (where intake interviews take place), and at the check-out counters (where food is weighed, counted, and recorded). Intake interviews are one-on-one between a staff member and an individual client or family. The client and staff member are seated across a desk from each other, while the client is interviewed for family characteristics, income, and other eligibility requirements. The language and words used revolve around money and resources. In contrast, conversations at the check-out counter are more lively, with a team of two to four volunteers interacting with clients similar to a retail grocery store check-out line. However, the conversations here revolve around the concepts of weight, limits, and the distinction between foods that “count” or “don’t count.”

Clients and workers must understand the rules of the pantry in order to navigate the system. Clients are allowed to select a finite amount of food (based on weight), which is determined by their family characteristics. This amount is recorded on a form the client uses as he/she shops, and that they present to workers at check-out. Items within the pantry are categorized as those that “count” and those that “don’t count.” Clients need to understand the two basic rules: “If it’s fresh, it doesn’t count” and “If you can’t eat it, it doesn’t count.” These rules are written on client forms and on signage around the pantry. Examples of foods that “don’t count” are fresh produce, baked goods and toilet paper. However, even though certain items may not count, the pantry places additional limits on certain foods (presumably due to supply), such as eggs, tuna, frozen meat, peanut butter, etc. Thus, the word, “limit” is used frequently within the pantry. If it all sounds confusing, it is. There is a definite learning curve for both clients and workers in understanding the rules that govern item selection within the pantry. Clients frequently approach staff at the check-out counter to clarify the rules.

Workers use a specific written language revolving around the calculations that are done as clients check out. Clients’ grocery carts are weighed on an industrial floor scale, and workers note the gross weight. This is known as the “Out the Door (OTD)” weight. Items are then separated at the check-out counter. Workers place items that “don’t count” onto a smaller counter scale so they can subtract this weight from OTD weight. It’s this net weight (consisting only of the foods that “count”) that must not exceed the client’s predetermined weight limit. Workers discuss and closely track all of these weights, as well as items that count/don’t count and those that have limits. All calculations and weights are recorded on the client’s form for later filing.

Finally, I have noted that the food pantry uses abundant signage to convey messages to both workers and clients. Signs remind everyone of items that “count” and “don’t count,” of limits on selected items, of temporary changes to the normal rules on what “counts/doesn’t count” (i.e., if an item is in abundance, restrictions may be temporarily lifted), and that clients are expected to “share with others” and to take a “reasonable amount of food.” These are very different messages from those you might find in a commercial grocery store.

But how is “reasonable” defined by workers and clients? Another sign posted near the toothbrushes read, “Please take one toothbrush per family member. We will be happy to replace it in 6 months.” Clearly, signage at the pantry is being used to shape client behaviors and attitudes. This is an additional aspect of language that will be studied during this research project.

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