Food assistance in the United States has always had two arms: The food bank or pantry part ("here's a 5-pound bag of flour to take home") and the soup kitchen part ("come in out of the cold and pull up a chair"). The trouble is, that doesn't reflect how Americans are eating.
We dine out, on average, four times per week, more if you're a millennial. We want quick-serve. We want grab-and-go and prepared food. We want Grubhub and DoorDash and Uber Eats. We want to wear our pajamas when the nice person brings us a delicious, hot meal in a foam clamshell.
It turns out, low-income and food-insecure people want that, too, and some of the more than 200 food banks in the national Feeding America network are piloting programs to make that happen.
"The question was: How do we get food to homes in a different way?" said Thomas Mantz, the executive director of Feeding Tampa Bay. "For some, it will be a banana box filled with food, for others it will be a bag of groceries, for some it will be a sit-down meal, for some it will be a take-home meal and, eventually, it will be food delivery."
It's those last two – take-home and delivery – that food banks seldom have been equipped to provide. Historically, food banks haven't had commercial kitchens. They were built for mass scale, the collection points for shelf-stable foods: boxes and cans. That model has changed as national tastes have skewed toward fresh produce and perishable foods, and it's changing again as food banks build kitchens or partner with commercial kitchens to produce prepared food and finished meals.
Over the summer, Mantz and his team made roadside bandit signs printed with, "If you need a free meal, text this number," and planted them in low-income neighborhoods. The signs did not identify an association with Feeding Tampa Bay, and plenty of people texted to ask if it was legitimate. The first time, 50 people signed up and 30 arrived to pick up their meals at the parking location of Feeding Tampa Bay's food truck. The second time, 80 signed up and 60 showed, and the last time, more than 100 signed up and close to 70 showed.
As the meals were distributed, Feeding Tampa Bay staffers interviewed the recipients.
"We learned that 53 percent would never go to a food bank. They don't see themselves that way. They weren't critical of others who would, they just said this is not what I do, not who I am," Mantz said. "The second thing we noticed about folks who would use this service – they said, 'I don't need a box of food for the week, I need food today.'"
This may reflect how Americans across the board are eating, rather than poor planning or shortsightedness. One can picture the archetypal scene that plays out at 5 p.m. across the country, when spouses and housemates call each other with the same question: "What are we doing for dinner tonight?"
The Tampa food bank aims to do another test this spring, partnering with Trinity Cafe, a long-standing free restaurant in Tampa. Far less concerned with food deserts, an urban area in which it is difficult to buy affordable or quality fresh food, Mantz said this program will combat food swamps, a place where unhealthy foods are more readily available than healthy foods.
"We've tested the model, and it works," Mantz said. "We've had a theory that working families are the ones really struggling and who would want this. Most of these folks are part of our economy, they have jobs and homes. They're us. They want to consume food in the same ways, and they want it to be a dignified process."
An interesting twist: Many of the takeaway-meal recipients asked to pay at least a little, which speaks to the dignity component. But because the nonprofit organization is legally precluded from charging for meals, it's a bit of a head-scratcher for management.
Feeding Tampa Bay also is piloting food pantries in schools, with the goal of eventually having finished take-home meals available. And it aims to debut pantries in hospitals that will offer finished takeaway meals targeting specific health concerns and dietary restrictions.
Harnessing handheld technology to get food into the right hands has been a focus for hunger-relief organizations. Feeding America debuted a MealConnect app in June 2017 that connects food donors in real-time to food-delivery services and agencies. It was piloted in Austin and Fort Worth, Texas; Indianapolis; San Jose, California; and Lexington, Kentucky and is now available nationally.
The organization is also piloting customizable – another buzzword in the quick-serve and grab-and-go restaurant world – finished-meal programs for specific populations (diabetics or people with high blood pressure, for example). It has been working on launching scalable finished-meal programs for seniors, and specifically for multigenerational households.
One reason seniors may be a growing focus, according to Erika Kelly, chief membership and advocacy officer for Meals on Wheels, is that the block grant that partially funds Meals on Wheels has been on the Trump administration's chopping block for the past three years.
If those cuts went into effect, Kelly said, it would increase wait lists, reduce the number of delivery days, reduce staff hours and, in some cases, shut down programs altogether. With the senior population projected to nearly double by 2060, even moderate funding cuts would have a significant impact.
At Feed More in Richmond, Virginia, a collaboration between Feeding America and Meals on Wheels, the shift has been toward medically tailored meals, as well as low-sodium, kosher, vegan and vegetarian options.
"Boomers are changing metrics," said Jenny Young, Meals on Wheels' vice president of communications. "Choice and variation are the future. The seniors of today are used to having more choice. They want more choice."
Just like everybody else.