Thursday, November 22, 2007

The More You Give

‘Tis the season to give and for decades we have given and given and yet every year there is always more to give. Every year there seems to be more people who give and more people who are in need. Why is it that for all of our giving we haven’t made a dent in the numbers of people who are in need? Is it that we haven’t given enough? Would giving more reduce the need? These are important questions that every year at the holidays I find myself asking. There just doesn’t seem to be an end to the need or any light at the end of the tunnel.

After careful consideration I have come up with what I consider the two main reasons we continue to see increases in the number of hungry people who show up at our pantries and soup kitchens. I don’t think it is a lack of trying or giving on the part of most Americans. Americans for the most part are giving people, we donate billions of dollars a year to a variety of charities and causes. In 2006 alone, Americans donated over 245 billion dollars or over 2% of their disposable income. Needless to say we have donated a lot of money over the decades, so what is the problem? I will not even begin to try and tackle the myriad of problems concerning eliminating poverty in America, but I would like to discuss hunger. Hunger is attacked in America in mainly three ways, there are soup kitchens that provide for daily needs, there is food pantries that provide for more long term needs, and then there is the Federal program of food stamps.

Let’s begin with soup kitchens, in most major cities there are churches and other social service organizations providing free meals throughout the day for those who are hungry. There are lists of these places posted at most social service organizations or they can be found through word of mouth from the people on the streets. To locate the lists one would simply ask a homeless person, where are they feeding?” At which point you would get the culinary cuisine being offered that day at probably all available outlets. The usual procedure is that each outlet offers a particular meal, so there is a circular effect. Breakfast is served at one location, lunch at another, and dinner is usually served at another. Some locations only serve on particular days.

Most of the food for these locations is provided by donations, either directly to the organization or through a large food bank or pantry. Most cities today have a food bank, a central location where businesses or individuals can drop off donations of perishables or non-perishable items that are then inspected and distributed throughout the city. In addition to the central or main food bank, there are usually smaller local food pantries run by churches or other social service organizations which also distribute food to the needy. Most of the perishable foods donated from businesses is very time sensitive and usually has expired its time, so a lot of the food banks work is tied up in inspecting, sorting, and disposing of donations.

The beauty of the food bank concept is that it allows everyone in the process to “feel good”. From the business owner or corporation that donates its excess products, to the volunteers that sort and distribute the food, everyone gets to feel like they are making a difference and pitching in to help end hunger. Especially now that the holidays are upon us the drive to secure more donations is at a fever pitch. There are large containers everywhere for donations and they are advertised constantly through PSA’s or on local newscasts. Food drives are being conducted by everyone. Each year there are literally tractor trailer trucks full of food to be distributed and yet each year there is more need.

The food stamp program is a federally sponsored program created to help the nation’s farmers by boosting the consumption of over produced crops. While the program did help to alleviate hunger, that was not its original purpose. The program has undergone many reincarnations and transformations to its current form. The program offers participants an ATM card that they can use at stores to purchase food products, there are strict guidelines as to what the person may or may not purchase. Due to continued assault on the program by Conservatives and in turn the general public there are also strict eligibility requirements and unemployed adults can only receive benefits for three months. Because of reduced participation in the food stamp program, many private food banks have had increased participation. There is not less hunger it has just been shifted from government to private sources.

The problem with these programs is that they don’t attack hunger and poverty at their sources. It provides a short-term way for donors to feel good and to believe that they are helping to end hunger. The truth is these programs actually create more hunger. They create more hunger by how they are administered and managed. These programs are basically giant food give a-ways with no concern for the actual need of the individuals they are trying to serve. It creates an endless circle of donations, give a-ways, and pickups. While they may provide a chance for donors to get rid of old merchandise, they do little for the elimination of long-term hunger.

It is a known fact among food advocates that no matter how much food you show up with there will always be people to take it. It matters little what you are giving away or whether the persons need it, it is free. When word gets out that there is free food available unfortunately the old human characteristic of greed will show up with the food. No one seems to care because the goal is to get rid of the food, so we all continue to play the game and every year the problem continues unabated. I wish this year people took more of an interest in promoting real solutions to our problems and not just short-term warm fuzzy moments. I hope we can begin to move away from our current system, because all we are doing is creating the largest poor people in the world.

I know that all problems are relative, but I can’t help looking at the images of hunger in the world and then looking at our people and I hate to say it but it isn’t quite the same. I’m not so sure our problem is entirely hunger and until we begin to address the true problems I don’t know if we are doing any good for anyone. So this holiday season when we are loading up those bags of non-perishables heading down to the church, store, or other drop-off point, maybe we could think about more than the short-term gratification and consider what we can do to make a real difference in the lives of people. Maybe it’s really not more food they need, maybe it is something more. Happy Holidays!

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