A new grocery store has cropped up in the Lyndale/Whittier area of Minneapolis. Good Food is the brainchild of Kurt Vickman, a pastor turned grocer who saw a need for something between a grocery store and a food pantry. In a Twin City Daily Planet interview, Vickman recounted times when food pantry recipients would try to pay something for their food, and said “We want to provide dignity where people are contributors. We want to offer, not a hand out but a hand up.”
Members of Good Food pay 25% less of the regular sale price of merchandise, in exchange for volunteering two and a half hours a month. Volunteers do bagging, stocking, painting, and repairs. One of the appeals of this model is that it reduces employment cost, one of the largest expenses for most businesses and non-profits. According to Huffington Post there are currently 375 members volunteering 2.5 hours a month each, yielding 937.5 hours of unpaid labor. A good paying job can be a hand up, and it’s not limited to just food. Wage earnings can be spent on education or healthcare or housing or anything.
I don’t know if the reduced labor costs cover the discount provided to volunteer members. What I do know is that training and insurance standards for unpaid volunteers are usually much lower than they are for paid staff. This leads to a greater potential for injury and for uninsured medical expenses due to injury. In this case, the volunteers are themselves known to be in financial need, so this concern is not without merit.
Vickman is right that many people feel shame over receiving charity. They want not to feel like a burden or a leach on society, and to feel as if they’ve earned what they have. For them, this store is a welcome alternative to food pantries. For many others, the cost savings will be worth the time, regardless of their feelings about charity. For them this store will also be a boon. For others however, being told they must earn their most basic needs, despite poverty and other possible confounding factors like disability or caretaking responsibilities, will be defeating. To learn that not even charity is free (this store replaced a former food pantry run by Vickman) may have the opposite effect than intended.
I’m not writing this post to bash Vickman or Good Food, but to temper excitement with caution. The food is fresher and nicer looking than the produce in most pantries. There is more variety in the food and vendors or more reliable than food donations. As Vickman points out, the store is clean and well-lit, the kind of place people not in poverty always get to shop in. I think Vickman’s goals are noble but in complete and unnecessarily burdened by negative views on needing a hand out with no strings attached. I think this is ultimately more beneficial than not, but I don’t think it meets the needs of all people in the area, and I think the use of volunteer labor denies employees opportunities for more paid hours at work.