John Arnold, O’the Wilds of West Michigan
Last week a dear colleague of mine and visionary for food bankers all over the country finished his life’s journey. After facing down cancer for years, John Arnold’s suffering ended in the comfort of his home in Michigan with his wife and son.
When I met John, he was the irrepressible executive director of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Western Michigan (Grand Rapids). He was already a legend. We had both been invited to serve on an important task force for our national organization, Feeding America. The task force needed to design a system where food supplies donated to the national organization could be shared fairly among its 200 member food banks. I think my experience in the private food business contributed to why I was asked. John’s reputation and socialist leanings probably contributed to his selection. No one, especially me, would have guessed that two people with such very different backgrounds would become such strong friends. Maybe it’s true that opposites attract. Instead of being in conflict from our opposite ends, we seemed to, rather, complete the circle. For me it was a transformative experience.
The task force did its work well. John added its success to a long list of accomplishments.
Maybe best known for his personal mission to get food pantries to act as “Choice” cupboards where clients are provided the dignity and respect to have a vital say in which particular foods they need, rather than be given a pre-packed bag or box of foods that the cupboard operators felt they should have. John loved offering a wide diversity of food options in addition to old favorites he liked to call “bunker foods.”
Today, virtually all cupboards in Grand Rapids and many others across the country operate on this model. It turns out they are much more efficient at utilizing the wide diversity of goods donated during food drives.
In his last years he was working to expand his innovation called “Mobile Pantries”. These are basically trucks that go out to a needy area in the community and set up tables in a parking lot to distribute their contents. Philabundance’s “Fresh For All” outlets are somewhat modeled on this innovation. To a passer-by they suggest a mid-week farmer’s market. Freed from the need for a structure, they are incredibly effective at getting much needed food supplies to under-served communities.
John was always pushing the envelope for new and better ways to help feed hungry people.
Rarely in this life do you have the chance to become friends with a hero/saint; someone whose quiet humility and fierce passion for compassion transforms your own view of the world and forces you, by his simple example, to commit yourself to the same cause because becoming his comrade in arms seems a high calling.
Rest now John, your good friends across the country will carry on your fight.