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It didn't seem right—just letting people take as much free food as they wanted.

Volunteers struggled with the concept when an eastern Ohio food pantry began letting clients choose their own food instead of giving them a pre-boxed three-day supply. But it became clear people weren't going to empty the shelves.

"They looked at us like, 'Where do I begin, and how much should I take?'?" recalled Janet Gore, director of Journey's End Ministries in Newcomerstown. "The poor have a lot of pride. They take what they need."

Far from depleting its stocks, Journey's End has seen its cost per person drop as well as a six-fold increase in users since switching to client choice in 2008. Factory closings drove up the numbers, but so did giving clients dignity, Gore said. "We made it much more comfortable for them to shop."

The church-supported pantry is one of many that let people shop for what they want rather than pre-packaging what's supposed to be good for them. It's a growing philosophy that enables pantries to feed more people and waste less food, advocates say.

"The trend in recent years is very much to move to that system, where people are selecting exactly what they want," said Ross Fraser, spokesman for Feeding America, a national network serving 29,000 pantries, 20 percent of which now use client choice. "We know people will use what they take."

Besides reducing thrown-out food, the system better reflects biblical principles, said John Arnold, executive director of Feeding America West Michigan and a leading proponent of client-choice. "There's no admonishment in Scripture about being overly generous to people who need it."

The debate about how best to feed the hungry has taken on greater urgency amid a recession-wracked holiday ...

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In the Magazine

December 2010

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