Johnson wants to turn CFBC Community Food Distribution into a free grocery store stocked with the same healthy options available at local groceries.
He would continue to purchase the food directly from grocery stores, and customers could come to the distribution center, which would be set up like a store, with coolers lining the walls, produce aisles to walk, and shelves of ordinary pantry goods.
They would be allotted points based on their needs. Was it a stop-gap grocery run so that a family could cover an unexpected bill? A restock after losing a refrigerator-full of food when power was cut? Some supplemental items for a widow while she waits for survivor benefits to kick in? Rather than dollars and cents, people would shop with points.
The grocery store model of food distribution—used by several pantries in San Antonio and many others across the country—has more than one benefit, advocates say. It reduces waste because shoppers aren’t taking home food they don’t know how to cook or quantities beyond what they can eat.
Research also shows that when people are given the chance to make a healthy choice—as opposed to having healthy food foist upon them—they are more likely to stick to that choice.
That second point gets to another of the reasons Johnson thinks the grocery store model is right for his community: dignity.
By the time people come to him, Johnson said, they’ve sold what they could, trimmed all there is to trim out of the budget, and have no other option than to ask for help. Some have delayed the day as long as they can—he’s met more than one person who had gotten to the point of eating their pet’s food while trying to stretch groceries between paychecks. When people show up at the church needing food, Johnson and his team want the process of receiving help to be as uplifting as possible.
They’re seeing themselves in a new light, he explained, and it’s the church’s job to remind them that they are no less dignified and valued than they were when their bank account was full.
“We talk a lot about being humble, but if you’ve just read about other people’s suffering, then this is new,” Johnson said. “You have to hold their hand, pray with them.”
Helping people in this way is not cheap, but Johnson is determined to keep finding donors who will get behind the vision. Johnson has said “no” to grant funding, which would allow him to raise the $4,000/month needed to get the grocery store fully up and running. But he wants his primary focus to be the community, not grantmakers.
He’s taking the slow road, raising funds in the community and accepting donations—which anyone can give by emailing or calling the church. Making an idea like this work is going to require longterm help from his fellow San Antonia’s.
“If the community doesn’t support this, it’s not gonna work,” he said.
He’s offering families in his community a choice. He’s offering us one, too.