Abundance

November 2022
Issue #2

This Month

Hello folks! And thank you for checking out The Magic Word. Here's what you'll find in this month's issue.

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Some thoughts on abundance

In conversation with...
Anina Estrem

Resource smörgåsbord

Limited time! Ends soon! Flash sale!

These phrases are peppered throughout my (embarrassingly unwieldy) inbox this morning, yelling at me in the email subject lines sent by different companies. I definitely don’t need or want new shoes or a magazine subscription. But I’ll admit my interest is briefly piqued when scanning my emails. What ends soon? What am I about to miss out on? I should probably open this just in case, right?

Marketers are banking on this type of response, and for good reason. Scarcity bias—when we perceive resources that are limited as more valuable than those that are abundant—is real and impacts consumer behavior.¹ If a resource is scarce, or if there is a limited period of time to gain access to that resource, our gut reaction is to snag it while we can.

We have our biology to thank for that response. From an evolutionary perspective, we’re hardwired to pay close attention to resources that are scarce, since missing out on critical resources can mean the difference between life and death. That, along with negativity bias—which results in humans focusing on and experiencing negative events more intensively than positive ones—both contribute to our tendency to focus on the negative and on what we are lacking.²

Of course, many people and communities do need to focus on meeting basic needs as a result of inequitable systems and resource allocation. Today, 1 in 10 U.S. households experience food insecurity; and among households with children, that number is higher.³ But in the design space, practitioners can be unnecessarily consumed by what’s missing and overlook the bountiful assets and resources present. That’s especially true in social sector design, where designers —particularly those from outside a community—frequently maintain a saviorist orientation looking for problems to solve and “innovative” solutions to create. And in addition to concentrating on what’s lacking, if not co-designing with stakeholders, designers may actually look straight-on at important resources and not understand or appreciate their value.

So what might it look like to try on an abundance mindset rather than a scarcity mindset in our work and collaborations? How might that impact our work? And how can we think about abundance at the intersection of food and design, especially in a time where affordable food is more scarce than it has been in recent years?

This month I’m taking some inspiration from Anina Estrem, Operations Manager at FISH Food Pantry in Vancouver, WA, who is this month’s featured interviewee, along with asset-based design approaches long practiced by many communities. Thanks for joining!

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Some thoughts on

- Lucy

abundance

Thanks for joining The Magic Word this month, Anina! Can you tell our readers a bit about who you are, what you do, and what brought you to your work?

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In conversation with...

I grew up on a small Oregon farm where being actively engaged with what I eat became part of my identity. My professional commitment to making food fun started by serving two years with FoodCorps, an AmeriCorps program dedicated to improving the food landscape for children in low-income schools. While I loved the work, a moment while working with students in rural Montana dramatically changed my understanding of food justice. I realized that no matter how much these kids loved the vegetables we were tasting, many of them had at most a bag of potato chips waiting for them at home. Their families could barely afford gas to the nearest grocery store, let alone the expense of fresh produce. I understood that to help people eat better, my focus needed to be on access. This epiphany led me to oversee three school-based food pantries in Portland where I discovered my passion for food banking. I received a master’s degree in public policy focused on food justice, and then worked at the Oregon Food Bank developing their inaugural advocacy program specifically targeting volunteers. Currently, I work as Operations Manager at FISH of Vancouver Food Pantry in Vancouver, WA. FISH is Vancouver’s largest food pantry, serving over 100 households daily as a client-choice, grocery style pantry open to anyone in need of food assistance.

Anina Estrem

When I think about our food safety net, including food banks, abundance isn’t the first word that typically comes to mind. I think first about the lack of equitable systems and resources that has led to such enormous unmet need in the first place. But I’ve heard you talk about how critical an abundance mindset is within your work. Can you share more about that?

There is incredible stigma against using emergency food assistance in the US. The “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” myth fosters shame and embarrassment for those facing food insecurity, which impacts how they use food pantries. Many food access organizations have internalized the idea that there is only enough food for people who deserve it, and that supply must be protected against abuse by those who don’t. This results in hungry individuals reluctant to seek help at all and who take less food when they do. Because FISH believes that everyone deserves to eat no matter what, we’ve deliberately adopted an attitude of abundance to ensure everyone is comfortable taking the food they need to thrive. This also helps build faith in our reliability, which can result in clients taking less food since they know it will be available on their next visit rather than hoarding out of fear it will run out. When we first started serving an Afghani refugee family last winter, they took as much food as they could carry every time, no matter what it was. Coming from a war-affected country with unreliable resources, it made perfect sense. Over the past year, we’ve seen them slowly reduce the amount of food they need to feel safe and fed. Offering an abundance of food helps everyone feel as dignified, secure, and well-fed as possible. 

How do you approach the design of your food pantry program with abundance in mind?

FISH actively encourages clients to take more food and doesn’t set limits on how much they can have. We recognize that food security feels different for everyone—some people may need a pantry full of goods to feel safe while others only need several days of meals. Offering everyone more food helps dispel fears of not being deserving or needy enough.

We work hard to keep our shelves fully stocked, and the visual effect helps clients overcome their fears of taking too much. Canned goods are arranged to take up as much physical space as possible. If we’re running low, we’ll push all the cans to the front of the shelf so that it maintains the appearance of being full. If we run out, volunteers offer an alternative even if it is not a close equivalent. Someone may not want ketchup as an alternative to mayonnaise, but it perpetuates the impression that we have more options available. For the few items which run chronically low (frozen meat, eggs, and coffee), we have “goals.” Setting a goal that everyone gets one manages supply while still projecting abundance. Even our signs say, “please take,” rather than, “please take only.” Clients feel respected when they see that we want everyone to get one dozen eggs, which is a very different impression than we would give from telling them they only get one dozen.

FISH also offers fresh produce, and it takes a team of volunteers to keep our bins heaped full of colorful, appealing options. No matter what our supply looks like, clients are encouraged to take more and never shamed for their food choices. We often have too much produce, so there is always something we encourage clients to take more and more of (sweet potatoes and cabbage this week!). We also have strict standards of quality control, so that our guests never feel like they receive discarded or unwanted foods. 

FISH also practices abundance by distributing culturally specific foods so that all the diverse populations we serve feel welcome. One of my favorite client interactions was when a shopper found a frozen cassava leaf soup familiar to her eastern African homeland—she was ecstatic and so excited to share it with me! Many of our guests don’t need enormous amounts of food—they’re looking for the specific items that are important to them and their traditions.

What parts of your systems and/or infrastructure has had to change to achieve these shifts?

The biggest challenge was developing an attitude of abundance in the organizational culture. When I started at FISH, volunteers regularly voiced fears that clients took more food than they needed. Critiques regarding our selection or quality were met with defensiveness—guests should be happy with what they get! We have reframed this attitude by consistently celebrating when a client leaves with extra food and expressing gratitude when someone shares how we can do better. After two years, it has become a point of pride among volunteers to help our guests fill their shopping carts. They boast when they successfully convince a client to take an extra bag of sweet potatoes or help them find the last can of evaporated milk. It has been the most magnificent transition to watch, and certainly the accomplishment of which I’m the most proud. 

This change in attitude has also helped reduce the power imbalance that emerges when volunteers are enforcing limits. By eliminating this responsibility, volunteers are less likely to encounter conflict and instead can enjoy the fulfillment that comes with helping our guests leave with full hearts and bellies. A client recently told me, “You make us feel like it’s okay to be here and to need help,” which was all we needed to know that this strategy works. 

Your team and food banks nationwide are doing really critical work, especially now when food insecurity and hunger is soaring. But the goal is to eliminate the need for these types of resources. Where should folks go if they want to learn more about the fight to end food insecurity and hunger?

There are so many ways to fight hunger! The root causes of hunger rest in systems of oppression, which makes every social justice issue a hunger issue—racism, housing, healthcare, reproductive rights, immigration… I am heartened that more and more anti-hunger organizations are recognizing this and engaging on broader issues. I recommend starting with Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon and the Oregon Food Bank, who both offer incredible resources for learning how to be an anti-hunger advocate. I also think volunteering with any direct service organization is an essential opportunity for discovering and challenging the assumptions and biases that we all have regarding poverty and who is hungry.

Thank you so much. Where can folks go if they want to learn more about you and your work?

Those who want to learn more about FISH should check out our website. To learn more about FISH’s transition to a full client-choice pantry, read this recent article at Food Bank News. I’m also happy to chat about anything regarding food banking and hunger at aninae@fishvancouver.org.

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Resource smörgåsbord

Every month we'll share a variety of books, articles, podcasts, and other resources on the month's concept and other topics at the intersection of food x equity x design.

How One Pantry Pivoted to Client Choice by Ambreen Ali in Food Bank News (article)

By offering patrons the option of what foods they would like, rather than handing over a prepackaged box, pantries reduce waste, improve service quality and—most importantly—preserve dignity by letting clients decide what they want to eat.

Asset mapping provides information about the strengths and resources of a community and can help uncover solutions. Once community strengths and resources are inventoried and depicted in a map, you can more easily think about how to build on these assets to address community needs and improve health. This toolkit was developed by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

The Design Justice Network (DJN) is a home for people who are committed to embodying and practicing the Design Justice Network Principles. We wield our collective power and experiences to bring forth worlds that are safer, more just, more accessible, and more sustainable. To learn more, including how to sign onto the DJN Network Principles and become a member, check out DNJ overview here.

The We All Count Data Equity Primer is a laser-focused, one-hour introduction designed to get you up to speed on the core issues facing the equitable and ethical use of data and provide you with a clear picture of the challenging landscape of turning complex human questions into numbers then back into meaning. Live events scheduled January–February 2023; see website for more details.

There are so many ways to fight hunger! The root causes of hunger rest in systems of oppression, which makes every social justice issue a hunger issue—racism, housing, healthcare, reproductive rights, immigration… I am heartened that more and more anti-hunger organizations are recognizing this and engaging on broader issues. I recommend starting with Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon and the Oregon Food Bank, who both offer incredible resources for learning how to be an anti-hunger advocate. I also think volunteering with any direct service organization is an essential opportunity for discovering and challenging the assumptions and biases that we all have regarding poverty and who is hungry.

¹ Mittone, Luigi, and Lucia Savadori. “The Scarcity Bias.” Applied Psychology 58, no. 3 (2009): 453–68. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1464-0597.2009.00401.
² “Negativity Bias.” The Decision Lab. Accessed November 1, 2022. https://thedecisionlab.com/biases/
negativity-bias. 
³ “Key Statistics & Graphics.” USDA ERS - Key Statistics & Graphics. Accessed November 2, 2022. https://www.ers.usda.gov/
topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-u-s/key-statistics-graphics/.


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