Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Another view on giving.

In her book Sweet Charity, Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement, Poppendick says that “[Charitable endeavors] work pervasively on the cultural level by serving as a sort of ‘moral safety valve’; [they] reduce the discomfort evoked by visible destitution in our midst by creating the illusion of effective action and offering us myriad ways of participating in it.”

The idea that food pantries and emergency food may just make us “feel better” about poverty is an interesting thought to me. Her facts about emergency food programs are very undeniable, that they undermine social programs that could do more to fix the problem rather than just put a band-aid over it. I understand it as something similar to “If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, if you teach a man to fish you feed him for a life time”. However my personal experiences have led me to believe that people volunteer for much more than the good feeling they get.

In the depersonalization section of Sweet Charity there is a little clip from Joyce Hoeschen, a founder of a food bank in Bath, Maine. She talks about how the people who come to the food bank usually have no one to talk to about their lives. Their bosses don’t care, their landlords don’t care and the best thing that pantry workers can do is provide a ear to listen. This theory is similar to my experience volunteering at the Neighborhood Meal at my church in Schenectady, NY. We do not require any paperwork or proof of need because it is an end of the month hot-food meal service directed towards people of the surrounding neighborhood-(Hamilton Hill- a very poor, primarily minority neighborhood ) to come and have a meal when their food stamps run out. The members of our parish volunteer to prepare donated food during the church service and it is served an hour after the service. Members are encouraged to stay after church and help set up, serve food and stay and eat with the people we serve. Our goal is to show them that there are people who are genuinely friendly and will listen to them. We try to focus on asking them questions about their life and listening to them. If we got the opportunity to witness that is encouraged, but never forced.

I never really thought much about the feeling I got from volunteering there, the first time I stayed with my parents to help serve food was when I was 7 or 8. I grew to recognize some of the people that came every month, like clockwork. I always felt better after leaving the neighborhood meal, mostly because it made me realize how fortunate I was and because I felt like I was doing something good for people.

However, I’ve found that workers volunteer for so much more than the “good feelings”. I learned much more about the lives of the people who actually lived in poverty. It inspired me to do more to help with other charities such as habitat for humanity and going on missions to help the poor with my church. My church has programs that do more than just give a man a fish for a day. They have a placement program to help people find jobs within the church. They also have the alpha pregnancy center that provides information and assistance to pregnant women.

Although I understand her point of view and do think that there should be a restructuring of our society as a whole so that there are not so many poor, I think she is a little one-sided with her judgment of the people who work at charities. I believe that even if there was more government programs to help people that programs like the ones at my church would still do a better job, because the people who work at them intimately care about the lives of the people they serve.


  1. Your post was very interesting to me, especially since I took a course last semester about public service. What you've focused on is the idea of a community and you even touched on a bit about human nature. It is clear that you aren't a fan of the "human nature is selfish", but I wonder if you've hit on something integral to human nature - feeling safe.

    If you've ever seen this: . According to Maslow, safety is the step following the initial satisfaction of having the most basic resources. With so many of our global society still stuck at the base of this pyramid, it's not hard to see why so many folks would keep a pantry of goods or some sort of emergency ration.

    It makes sense that humans would create a program to act as the very thing most of us resolve to keep - a food pantry in our house for meals that aren't immediate. Therefore our charity programs as as similar.

    Like I said, very interesting post. I liked it. =)