Steve Thomas, Monroe County United Ministries February 2018
When Monroe County United Ministries (MCUM) converted its food pantry to a “client-choice” model in September of 2016, our agency took a meaningful step towards offering services that were more client-directed. Families no longer received pre-assembled food bags and were instead invited to select products directly from our pantry shelves based on their family size. For instance, a family of 4 currently selects up to 8 cans of vegetables from a selection of corn, green beans, peas, carrots, mixed vegetables, potatoes, spinach, or any other available options. This selection process continues throughout the shopping experience, as families choose their preferred canned and packaged goods, cereal, peanut butter, frozen and canned meat, bread, and even fresh fruits and vegetables delivered weekly by
Hoosier Hills Food Bank.
Beyond our Hoosier Hills’ provisions, all of our products are generously donated by the community, which includes individuals and families, social organizations, and local congregations of all faiths. When the supply of a certain product dwindles, financial contributions from donors help us patch holes on our shelves. The volume and variety of products offered – and the flexibility to provide more, fewer, or different options – is something for which we (and our clients) are extremely grateful.
By the fall of 2017, however, we recognized that this flexibility wasn’t being realized to its full potential. Despite the fact that the change to client choice had been informed by our clients, its operation hadn’t maintained that focus. As more new families arrived for assistance, we realized we had never asked for their input on the services they received in our pantry. Were our volunteers helpful? Did you get enough food today? What would you have liked to have had more of? Did you feel you had a good variety of options? Perhaps most importantly, how much did your visit today affect your family’s food security?
We designed a brief, pen-and- paper satisfaction survey to offer clients an opportunity to answer these questions and more. To our delight, client response was overwhelming. In the (optional) survey’s first three months, we received almost 400 responses – scores more than we had dreamed of! And scores more than could be comfortably coded by hand…
In January 2018, a seed support grant from BTCC helped us digitize the survey via a new agency iPad. Respondents can now choose to fill out the survey digitally or on paper, with or without assistance. About 95 percent of respondents opt for the digital survey, which saves them time and effort. This has also made the survey into a sustainable tool, as it saves our staff hours of time formerly spent coding responses by hand in Excel. That time is now spent analyzing the results of the survey, itself.
Analysis from the first three months revealed that 93 percent of clients are “very satisfied” with their shopping assistance from our volunteers and staff. We devote considerable time and energy training our volunteers and establishing a friendly and welcoming culture of support and solidarity, so it was great to see that reflected in the survey results. Moreover, 87 percent of respondents were “very satisfied” with the amount of food they received, with another 12 percent “somewhat satisfied.” With our client roll climbing higher and higher, maintaining this level of distribution will be a challenge, but one that we can now say will satisfy our clients when met.
The analysis also revealed clear client product preferences that we can use to inform our purchases moving forward. For instance, clients expressed strong preferences for food products that are quick, hearty, easy-to- prepare, and full of flavor without requiring additions. Products like frozen meat; “helper meals” such as Rice-a- Roni or Hamburger Helper; ready-to- eat soups, stews, and chili; and cereal were by far the categories of products our clients desired in greater quantities. Armed with this knowledge, we can prioritize purchasing products in these categories, especially when we can secure them from Hoosier Hills or at a deep discount from local grocers.
Most importantly, however, our analysis revealed an average 91 percent increase in clients’ self- reported food security (defined as “basic food needs met”) after visiting MCUM’s pantry. This indicates a difficult truth for us and for our clients: While our pantry is not a permanent solution, it does provide essential relief for families facing hardship and hunger. Our goal for the pantry is to provide as much relief as possible by responding to our clients’ needs and preferences, because only after basic needs are met can families focus on their path to long-term self-sufficiency. The indefinite continuation of the pantry satisfaction survey – made possible by the support of BTCC – is an important step to ensuring that we meet those needs and that client voices are a part of that process.