Client-Choice: A dignified and personal approach for food pantries

Thanks to the Jacobs & Cushman San Diego Food Bank and Feeding San Diego for coordinating an illuminating tour of “Client-Choice” food pantries in our region. And thanks to the Jewish Family Service Corner Market, and Catholic Charities College food pantry for sharing your programs.

The two Food Banks in San Diego County operate in the “warehouse” style, whereby they procure larger quantities of both purchased and donated food, and then supply this food to intermediaries like food pantries, soup kitchens and other front-line meal service providers. Through these networks, they help to provide over 40 million meals per year in San Diego County. The Food Banks work together and with their approximate 400 partner pantries to understand operational needs and the needs of those they serve---whether that is assistance with food-safety certifications, nutrition, social services, grants applications, or new service models such as Client-Choice.

So what is Client-Choice and why is it a good option today? Historically, food pantries struggled for resources and donations, and with limited food supply they had to have very strict rules about distribution, which resulted in a practice of “pre-bagging” groceries for clients. This means that everyone gets the same food in their bag, which can result in a lot of wasted food, and may not actually serve the needs of the clients. Not every food-insecure person is the same. A mother with children will have different needs for food and nutrition than an elderly man with poor teeth. And a homeless person may not have a kitchen in which to prepare or store certain foods.

While there are several Client-Choice Models, we toured two types: “Grocery Model” and “Inventory List”.

Jewish Family Service operates a Grocery Model, their “Corner Market”. Brendan Rosen, Hand Up Food Pantry Coordinator, summed up an aspect of their client-choice philosophy, which is “to give a hand up, rather than just a hand out”. Clients make an appointment to shop, and can visit one time per month (up to 6 times per year). Shopping at this market is most like a grocery shopping experience. Clients use a cart to choose canned and dry goods from shelves and table displays, as well as fresh items from the refrigerator cases. Clients choose a defined number of items by category, and if they need assistance, there is a volunteer “cashier” happy to help. This more personal and dignified distribution model offers an opportunity to have one on one conversations with clients, which can lead to determining what if any other assistance is needed to give this client “a hand up”.

Catholic Charities College operates a customized “Inventory List” food pantry. There is still a bit of the “pre-bagging” by volunteers, as commodity items are pre-sorted onto trays. But additional items are available to choose from a list. Roxanne “Roxi” Ramirez, Food Pantry Manager, creates her Client-Choice List using images of the available items and stop-light color-coding (red, yellow, green for go) to denote nutritional value. She wanted to create a list so that clients from many cultures and backgrounds could all understand the options and feel empowered to make their best choices. The choice items are gathered together with the pre-bagged commodity items by volunteers and provided to the client, along with cookbooks from SNAP Ed. One key element that has helped Catholic Charities College to move to this model is the addition of a new table for sorting and a refrigeration unit, which has allowed them to provide more healthful, fresh foods for distribution.

Client-Choice can offer a more dignified and personal interaction, while also helping to reduce food waste. It is really interesting and inspiring to visit the pantries, to see the operations in action, and to network with the dedicated and creative staff and volunteers.



Here are a few grant opportunities that focus on hunger. These might be good avenues to apply and receive funding to support monthly food purchasing budgets or equipment like a refrigerator, freezer, or pallet jack.

Walmart Foundation -

Safeway Foundation -

Guides to Establishing a Client-Choice System

Jacobs & Cushman San Diego Food Bank and Feeding San Diego Client Choice Booklet

Charity Food Programs that can End Hunger in America - (pages 20-23)

Post by Barbara Hamilton, Director of Strategic Initiatives