My Balloons don’t float (excerpt),” Helen HatesPeas

Excerpted from Reinventing Food Banks and Pantries: New Tools to End Hunger by Katie Martin. Copyright © 2021 by Katie Martin. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, DC. The following section draws from portions of Chapter 3, “A Paradigm Shift in How We Talk about Hunger,” pp. 46–50, 52–53.

Editor’s note: In her new book, Reinventing Food Banks and Pantries: New Tools to End Hunger, Katie Martin, executive director of the Foodshare Institute for Hunger Research & Solutions, calls for a shift in how practitioners talk about hunger and food insecurity. Here, Martin writes about how the language nonprofits and service providers employ can, if used carelessly, reinforce rather than mitigate the problems they are seeking to address. Martin writes about nonprofits that address food insecurity—but be warned: this issue is hardly unique to nonprofit food banks and pantries!

Scarcity Mentality: How to Move from Deficit-Based to Strength-Based Language

A key issue that is holding us back from really tackling and ending hunger is the focus on not having enough. Within charitable food work, and in other nonprofit sectors too, we describe this concept as the scarcity mentality.

Dr. Sendhil Mullainathan and colleagues at the University of Chicago have conducted several studies on scarcity. They describe how living in poverty and having a scarcity mindset forces individuals to focus on short-term needs and what is lacking rather than on other priorities. Dealing with scarcity can impact one’s cognitive function and sense of self-control. Their research shows how scarcity can explain behaviors such as overborrowing. Using a payday lender or check-cashing service with a ridiculously high interest rate seems like an obvious mistake. But when you need money immediately, especially if you don’t have a traditional banking account, this choice seems to make perfect sense. When you focus attention on what you don’t have, it leads you to make decisions that provide short-term gain but will hinder long-term well-being and, in the long term, will only make matters worse.

Another example is the language we use to describe our programs. A financial literacy class may be well intentioned but may not seem relevant for people with a scarcity mindset. I spoke with a food pantry guest a few years ago who talked about his reason for not joining a budget coaching class. He said, “I don’t have two pennies to scratch together. What am I going to budget?” The class may be better received and attended if we describe it by simply saying, “Do you want to save more money this month?”

A great way to find a name for a new program is to ask people who are likely to use the program for their opinions. Describe what the program will involve and what the potential benefits will be. How do they describe it, and what would encourage them to participate? Use their words to describe the program.

Scarcity Mentality in Organizations

It is not surprising to hear a scarcity mentality at the individual level, and this has been documented routinely by Feeding America and the USDA Economic Research Service food security reports. But we often hear a scarcity mentality at the organizational level, too, and among food pantry directors who are focused on lack. This mindset is often present in the way that directors and volunteers operate food pantries. We don’t have enough—fill in the blanks—space, food, volunteers, equipment, money, time. And therefore, we just need to get by and provide basic needs. We can’t plan or think about the future because we are worried about today.

Aside from the way a food pantry distributes food, the scarcity mentality manifests in more fundamental ways too. It can lead to a deficit-based view of the pantry, and worse yet, it can extend into seeing the deficits in others. Viewing clients as having many needs and problems can lead to a feeling that they are lazy, or not very smart, or cannot be trusted. The words and tone used when people come to a pantry can reinforce a scarcity mentality, and the language posted on signs can discourage clients. When people arrive, are they told sternly to stay in line? Do signs remind clients that they can take only two cans of soup? Can you get the same message across by using more welcoming signs and language?

The scarcity mentality can also create competition between nonprofit organizations, including food banks, food pantries, and other social service providers. If you believe that resources are scarce, and you are applying for grant funding, you are less likely to collaborate or share ideas with other groups because you worry that they will steal your ideas and they will get the grant instead of your organization. I believe we will all be better stewards of grant funding when we collaborate and partner with others. In fact, many funders now require or strongly suggest some type of collaboration between organizations to avoid silos where organizations work alone.

A Focus on Strengths

The opposite of scarcity mentality is a strength-based approach and a feeling of abundance. The term strength-based can be used to describe both a way of seeing others and how services are delivered: recognizing the inherent strengths in others, providing services without judgment, believing there is enough food for everyone, trusting that if you allow clients to choose their food they will take what they need but not more. Many organizations conduct needs assessments to identify weaknesses in a community. Some organizations are starting to conduct asset mapping to identify the various resources and opportunities within a community. When we see people in a food pantry line as having strengths, dreams, and goals, we can leverage their contributions.

Imagine if we take a strength-based approach when providing charitable food and running food programs. We would recognize that everyone has strengths that they bring to the table, even though they are going through tough times. They have something to share and offer. We would see possibilities and opportunities for growth, both for the people we serve and for our organizations.

To help you consider the language that you use, the chart below provides some examples of old-school language that I believe is outdated and then suggests new language that is strength-based, is more accurate, or uses an equity lens to be more inclusive. I also provide a brief rationale to describe the differences between the two descriptions. I hope this will give you some ideas for the words you choose for your work.

Suggested Language

Old school Suggested language Rationale

Feeding hungry people


Feeding the hungry


Ensure everyone has access to enough food


Provide food for people who are food insecure

We aren’t actually feeding others, nor do we want to. This is a paternalistic and degrading approach. We feed our pets. People can feed themselves. Also, saying “the hungry” creates an “us versus them” mentality. Using people-first language puts a person before a diagnosis or a problem, describing what a person “has” rather than asserting what a person “is.”

100,000 people are going to bed hungry tonight


100,000 people
don’t know where their next meal is coming from


100,000 people worry about having enough food for their families


100,000 people have to make difficult decisions between paying for food, rent, utilities, or medical bills

National statistics on food security are based on questions related to experiences over one year, so it is inaccurate to say that all those who are food insecure are going to bed hungry tonight. Food insecurity is more of a chronic problem than an immediate need for food for the next meal.
Emergency food programs  

Food pantries, community kitchens, meal programs


Community partners


Partner programs

When we think of an emergency, we think of short-term responses. Food insecurity is more of a chronic problem rather than an emergency situation. “Emergency” food programs should be reserved for natural disasters or a health crisis.
Focus on pounds of food, or even meals’ worth of food  

Reduction in food insecurity or increase in self-sufficiency


Percent of clients who rated their visit to the food pantry as “good or excellent”


Percentage of people who made fewer tradeoff decisions between paying for food, rent, or medicine

The focus of providing more food to more people every year has not, and will not, solve the problem of hunger. We want to measure the impact of our work in terms of outcomes. While pounds are easy to calculate and quantify, they are not the solution to the problem. Showing growth in pounds can distract us from more holistic approaches.
Focus on total pounds rather than nutritional quality of those pounds  

Describe overall pounds in terms of nutritional quality, such as green, yellow, and red to highlight healthy pounds of food.

Percentage of people who had improved health outcomes based on the food and services they received.

As we promote health and nutrition, we also need to measure the nutritional quality of the pounds we distribute. Simply focusing on total pounds can mask the health consequences of the food we distribute. Containers of soda weigh more than green leafy vegetables but have a much different effect on the health of the people we serve.

Guest, customer, member, participant

When we view the people we serve as guests or customers at our programs, we place more emphasis on customer service and pay attention to the guest.