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This is part of a series of guest posts featuring local writers. This post is written by Stephanie Butler, a student at UW Tacoma.
One of the first things Stacey Crnich, CEO of the Bonney Lake Food Bank, tells me is, “I’m an anti-food bank.” And while it seems like a statement that would take me by surprise, it really does not. Crnich has been CEO of the Bonney Lake Food Bank since 2020 (yes, immediately before the pandemic) and has transformed it from a struggling food bank in a dilapidated building into “The Market” – a farmhouse-style building with shelves filled with grocery items, fresh produce, and an abundance of meat and dairy products. It is the most anti-food-bank food bank.
How Food Banks Operate
In order to better understand food banks and scarcity mindsets, I wanted to get a basic understanding of how food banks operate. Where does their funding come from? Where does the food come from? We are familiar with food drives and donating food, but it turns out that those donations are only about 5% of their total food. 80% of their food comes from the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) and the other 15% comes from food recovery. Examples of food recovery would be when Crnich goes to the Starbucks distribution center and picks up pastries or goes to the local grocery store to recover food. She emphasizes that it’s not always day-old food. Sometimes it is simply just food that these companies aren’t going to use. These numbers aren’t the same for every food bank. Food banks that are connected to churches or other religious organizations do not get funding from the government. Food banks that are non-profits receive food and funding from the WSDA commodity contracts, which are a part of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The commodities market is food grown here in the US, that is subsidized by the US government.
The financial aspect of the Food Bank’s stability depends on a combination of funding from state, federal, county, and city/municipality governments, grants, fundraisers, and donations. The percentage of that break-down of can vary from organization to organization. That amount can also vary from year to year, and money coming in isn’t always a sure thing. Crnich mentions that when the recession hit, their individual donations, which used to make up 50% of their incoming money, dropped by 80%. She says, “when 80% of $1 million disappears, you really have to diversify.”
Volunteers are essential to the food bank’s success. As a non-profit, Crnich tries to keep their operating/management costs at around 10-12%. If every volunteer were paid, their operating costs would be well over 50%. And when operating costs are that high, neither the government nor individuals would fund that organization.
Scarcity in Food Banks
Food banks have long operated from a scarcity mindset. The focus is often on not having enough. Not enough time, money, food, support, and resources (Martin, 2021). When a food bank is operating from a scarcity paradigm, the message of “not enough” is then passed on to its customers (Martin, 2021). Crnich tells me that “organizations that are underfunded will also start treating food with a scarcity mentality.” This scarcity mindset shows up in the way that food banks distribute their food, the proof of struggle that they require from their customers, the language they use around their resources, and the monitoring of food being chosen by customers (Martin, 2021). Crnich points out that Washington is the 10th richest state in the nation, and we rank 34th in food security. She states, “there is not lack of food or money. There is lack of willingness to not participate in a scarcity structure. And scarcity breeds scarcity.”
As this scarcity mindset catches on, it can impact the way a food bank views its customers. Customers can be seen as lazy, not very smart, or unable to be trusted (Martin, 2021). In a set of tweets that gained popularity, a Texas food bank employee who goes by @astoldbykaki on Twitter, addressed the question of, “do people lie about needing food?” She states that they (as an organization) do not care if people are lying and goes on to explain that she works out of a warehouse literally filled with food that will not run out. The idea that there are people abusing the food system is a myth (As Told By Kaki, 2021). When I asked Crnich her thoughts on this statement, she explains to me that she used to work at Nordstrom, and there are people who take advantage of their really loose return policy. There will always be a group of people who take advantage of systems, at every income level, but that is a very small percentage of the population. And Crnich refuses to design an entire system based on a small percentage. She says, “not only is it illogical, but then you would be treating 99% of your population like thieves.” She argues that it is a much better use of her time to focus on creating a system that works better and helps people versus trying to outsmart anyone who might be taking advantage of systems. She says, “at the end of the day, nobody really wants to shop at a food bank.”
Scarcity in Individuals
As we’ve seen, the scarcity mindset of an organization can have an influence on the population it serves. When we view scarcity at an individual level, there are many consequences to how that can impact someone’s cognitive skills and decision making (Crandall & Temple, 2018; Huijsmans et al., 2019). Scarcity of resources creates more cognitive load for an individual and having less can require greater focus (Shah et al., 2012). When the majority of an individual’s attention is on lack of money or lack of food, they are going to make choices that they might not make if there was an abundance of these resources (Shah et al., 2018). Huijsmans et al. (2019) found that when individuals are facing scarcity, they report being more stressed and less confident. When someone is living in poverty, they are forced to focus on short-term needs and what is lacking, rather than other priorities (Mani et al., 2013). This might lead someone to make a choice like using a payday lender with super high interest rates. Impossible choices like this add up and prevent people from planning for the future. When organizations choose to focus on abundance, they can increase empathy, flexibility, and accommodations. Crnich asks, “what might happen if systems treated human beings better? Is there a ripple effect that we don’t know?”
Operating from Abundance
How can operating from an abundance mindset shift the way the food bank system operates? Crnich says, “If you operate from abundance and do not try to withhold and have a system set up where they can anticipate the outcome – and the outcome always needs to be that you’re on their side – everybody hits jackpot.” How does the Bonney Lake Food Bank operate out of abundance? Each member has 200 points that are on their membership card – she points out that the most points someone could use during a trip to The Market would be about 80, even if their cart was overflowing – and when someone has the knowledge that they have an abundance of points, it is empowering. She consistently and repeatedly says to her customers, “you have 200 points, get what you want.”
Scarcity mindset influences future generations (Zheng et al., 2023). One of the most impactful things Crnich said to me was, “their children are watching. They are watching how their parents behave in that space. They don’t know that they’re at a food bank. They’re not watching their parents go into a cortisol-induced survival mode. That’s the point.” Focusing on strengths and operating out of abundance shapes the world these children are growing up in. In a Facebook post, Crnich says, “our primary goal was to create a space so that no kid in our community would ever know they had been to a foodbank. We wanted to eradicate shame….and do it generationally. … Parents bring their tiny helpers without sadness…and they select produce, get a sucker from John, and help bag groceries with their favorite cashier. We have actually heard more than once that the kids in our community ask their parents if they can ‘please go to the reeeeally fancy grocery store’” (The Bonney Lake Food Bank, 2023).
Sheeran et al. (2016) found that attitudes, norms, and believing in one’s ability to succeed have a causal effect on intention and behavior. When intention and behavior are changed, health behaviors can also be changed. If an organization can change the way it sees its customers, that can then have a positive impact on an individual’s behavior. Another way food banks can signal that there is an abundance of food is in the way they give their customers the dignity of choice (Martin, 2021). One example of this is the point system that Crnich uses. It allows customers to choose what they want and what they know their families will eat. As she pointed out, choice is empowering, and it removes barriers.
Food banks can operate from abundance and pass that freedom on to their customers. Considering the ways our food system falls short as a whole can be disheartening. It is encouraging to speak to someone like Crnich, who understands that as she changes the system of a food bank in Pierce County, she is changing the larger system, little by little. She is shifting the way people think about access to food. Challenging previously held beliefs about individuals who visit food banks. As a food bank moves from scarcity to abundance, it replaces shame with dignity. And when one believes that every person is deserving of dignity, it can create a system that changes lives.