Community pantries/kitchens struggle continually to meet the needs of hungry people because their financial resources are always inadequate. I’m proposing what may be a new way to address this profound social evil, and I’m calling this social invention “The Alice Project” after Arlo Guthrie’s line “You can get nything you want at Alice’s Restaurant”.
The first key to the Alice project model is that it empowers people, whether acting as individuals or as families or groups, to set themselves up with three fresh, nutritious hot meals a day, every day no matter how limited their resources.
The second key is that the Alice Project model relies on goodwill and a win-win attitude on the part of those implementing the model but it also relies on their self-interest in addition to those necessary charitable impulses.
The final, third key to the Alice Project is that all but the most destitute people have some, even if very limited financial resources. The predator industries that feed on the hunger of the poor – all kinds of hunger, including deliberately manufactured hunger – have grown extremely rich exploiting the fact that the poor actually have a great deal of money, collectively.
The Alice Project is an expression of my belief that the collective wealth of any community, but especially any low-income community can become its own engine of change by creating thoughtful new models that really work in areas of food, health, housing, work, education, and aging.
Even after street cash, social benefits and SNAP, the fact is that low-income and homeless people in America starve at least part of every month, when their resources are used up. Unless they can get free meals from shelters and community kitchens, they starve the rest of the month.
This is an endless maze.
• Any meals a pantry or kitchen offer have to be free, because people have no money. • People have already spent their SNAP benefits, income benefits, and street cash if they have any by the time they get to kitchens and shelters.
This means that shelters and kitchens have to provide food without cash flow, and are stuck in a dependent position, surviving on and limited by donations, subsidies, and the occasional miracle.
Finally, in most states SNAP benefits can’t be used to buy prepared food, so poor hungry people can’t buy a hot nutritious meal with SNAP even if they want to because there’s no way that pantries, shelters or kitchens can recover their food costs with the SNAP program.
” The following items are not eligible for purchase with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits: alcoholic beverages, tobacco products, hot food, any food intended for immediate on-premises consumption.”
The Bread On Waters Ratio Suggests A Solution
I’ve noticed an interesting relationship between:
1. A Unit Weight of the food – let’s just say One Pound
2. The cost of the Unit Weight – let’s just say One Dollar
3. The # of cooked meal portions per unit weight of food – and let’s say 4 portions per pound
The BOW ratio appears to be something like 1:4 with many basic foods.
* The $1/Pound isn’t intended to be precise, but to suggest that there’s some kind of an advantageous relationship at work here. Of course, there is actually a surplus in some of these ratios, since $1 will often buy more than 1# (in bulk) of many basic foods and will thus produce more than 4 portions. And of course the amount of meat protein that $1 will buy isn’t steak.
But for the example, let’s just say that a number of very basic foods cost $1 a pound, as many do in bulk. I’m not, by the way, pronouncing the BOW ratio some sort of “perfect number”, or implying anything particularly magical – merely observing that a dollar, in most cases, appears to buy enough basic food to make quite a few cooked portions.
Setting Up An Alice Kitchen
Let’s envision a very poor neighborhood, with many people living on or nearly on on the street and crowded into sub-standard housing of all kinds. Now envision a community kitchen operating using donated food, cash donations, and volunteer labor, providing free meals to as many people as possible.
The community kitchen is in survival mode, which means that it serves people without money meals of donated and scrounged food until the food runs out.
The people are in survival mode – they do have a little money, but they spend it just surviving and it never lasts until the next government check or SNAP card so often their only option is the community kitchen or starvation.
Now add a couple of new elements to this picture.
Let’s envision a local, successful grocery store chain – let’s call it “New Ideas Market” – that is already involved doing a lot of good things in the community, but like everyone else trying to solve the problem of widespread hunger they are frustrated that their efforts aren’t more successful.
Now let’s say that New Ideas Market approaches a Community Kitchen and proposes to provide funds and manpower to organize an initial number of community residents into a co-operative – admittedly, no small task. Call this the Community Food Store.
In addition to initiating and helping set up the co-op structure for the Food Store, New Ideas Market will then act as the ongoing supplier, stocking the shelves and aisles on an at-cost basis, foregoing profits but not having to incur costs. The Food Store will carry ONLY food used by the Community Kitchen to prepare meals. For example, it will stock basic commodity foods, produce, meats and dairy, and other food. It will not stock any non-food items that are not required by the Community Kitchen to prepare and serve meals. Buyers at the Food store will know what to buy because the Community Kitchen will post a “Needed Today” list in the Food Store.
A formal co-operative operating structure that physically and legally separates the Food Store operation from the Community Kitchen/Pantry operation is necessary if the Food Store is to become Food Stamp/SNAP authorized.
However, the Food Store and the Community Kitchen/Pantry will be in close enough proximity for peoples’ convenience, and the co-op provides a coordinated operating structure and allocation of net revenues. At that point the operation will be “open for business”.
Here’s a hypothetical example of how the Bread On Waters ratio might operate, providing the economic energy which community kitchens have lacked in the traditional mode, and effectively diverting some of the low-income community’s financial resources from the hands of those who exploit hunger for profit.
The Nitty-Gritty Of An Alice Kitchen
A community resident goes to the Food Store and buys 10# of rice, paying $10 in SNAP benefits.
That gives the Food Store the cash flow to pay New Ideas Market as their supplier for the rice – remember New Ideas Market is only covering their costs, not making a profit, but they aren’t donating the food either.
Now that person goes from the Food Store to the (physically and legally separate) Community Kitchen/Pantry, and donates the $10 worth of Rice they just bought with SNAP benefits at the Food Store to the Kitchen/Pantry.
Now here’s the magic trick – the rabbit in the hat. SNAP benefits can’t be used to buy prepared food at a restaurant, but SNAP can be used to buy “raw” food. Food Store and Community Kitchen are legally and physically separated.
So after donating the 10# of Rice to the 501.c.3 Community Kitchen, as a gift for their donation (just like an NPR membership pledge gift), they receive 10 meal coupons. (And just like NPR, people in the neighborhood can become “sustaining members” of the Community Kitchen by pledging to donate regularly.)
These 10 coupons entitle them or anyone in their family to 10 full adult meals or 20 child/elderly meals served at the Kitchen/Pantry. The BOW ratio means that the 10# of rice becomes 40+ portions of cooked rice, just by adding water, of which only 10 portions are “owed” to the original buyer as a meal. This means that 30 “extra” meal portions of rice are generated.
These portions become part of the meals of others who have bought at the store and exchanged for meal coupons at the kitchen. Each $10 worth of food from the “Food Store” – 10# of vegetables, cheese, meat, bread etc. – becomes 40+ meal portions, for which the original buyer receives 10 meal portions.
An important principle is that the community kitchen/pantry does not accept cash OR SNAP CARDS for meal coupons; ONLY FOOD bought from the Food Store can be exchanged for coupons, and customers can only “buy” a meal with a coupon.
This means that all incoming resource transactions in the Community Kitchen/Pantry result in activation of the BOW ratio.
By placing the Food Store in close proximity to the shelter or kitchen/pantry, and by only accepting donations of basic food bought in the store in exchange for meal coupons, the shelter/kitchen can capture enough SNAP resources to enable the entire project to operate like a business in the sense that it becomes self-supporting and independent of charity.
This in turn means that any contributions received can go toward improving services, rather than simply staying afloat another day or week.
The threshold numbers of clients required to operate an Alice Project do not appear to be high. This means that small Alice projects can be neighborhood-based and therefore accessible to people who need the service the most, the relatively immobile poor, elderly, handicapped, unemployed, addicted and homeless.
Since the Kitchen/Pantry will probably operate using volunteer plus paid labor as needed, and since it has no food costs, the other overhead and operating expenses such as utilities can be covered from the cash flow into the co-op from the Food Store operation – where prices can be set to generate excess revenues over costs even as a non-profit.
The outcome of a successful neighborhood Alice Project would be that with a food budget of $3 a day from SNAP benefits, or $90/month, people who choose to participate can obtain 3 full high-quality meals a day for themselves and family members, and the organization providing those meals can do so in a way that it not only covers expenses but generates much-needed revenues through its revenue-generating but non-profit ‘partner’, the Food Store.
Spending less than $3 a day for food without cutting into life’s other “necessities”, including alcohol and cigarettes for those for whom this is reality, is within the means and abilities of even those in deeply unfortunate circumstances on the street. It is also a cost which can be almost 100% covered using properly budgeted food SNAP benefits, still leaving people enough SNAP benefits to cover other consumables.
For people without addictions to alcohol, cigarettes, and street drugs, who are simply bound by poverty, circumstances, and lack of available alternatives into the fast food/packaged food trap, the Alice Project can offer ready access to top quality food on such hard to refuse terms that there may be very real problems dealing with the demand.
By preparing and serving nutritionally superior meals including meats, vegetables, grains, dairy and eggs, and fruits and juices, all sourced from a “Food Store” that stocks items based on the Kitchen’s needs, a single neighborhood kitchen could turn around the malnutrition of a significant portion of the community in a very short time.
All that is really missing from many current community shelter/kitchen projects is an appropriate co-op structure and the ability to open the doors on a well-stocked Food Store operation, plus operational items like sufficient dishes & tableware, adequate food storage and preparation facilities, and a coupon program.
While this proposal does not offer a comprehensive solution to the problem of hunger I believe that by addressing the issue of who gets the meager resources of the poor – those who can help them to nourish themselves with that money, or those who exploit and drain them of the money – the Alice Project is worthy of consideration.
My hope is that readers will help me think this proposal through, identify and resolve any conceptual flaws, and create a model that can be customized and implemented in any American community. I say American only because the model takes advantage of specific American social benefits – it’s entirely possible that a variation of the “Alice Project” could be implemented in other cultures.