Monday, August 1, 2011

On Food Banks, The Mafia, Free Lunches, and Love

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On Food Banks, The Mafia, Free Lunches, and Love


I have recently been thinking about Food Banks, and specifically food banks run by churches. For those unfamiliar, a typical food bank collects donations of usually canned foods from the community. Some amount of this food is distributed to anyone who shows up on a given day, typically on a weekly or biweekly basis.

I once heard a similar organization argue thusly, “I think food is good. And there are some people out there who don’t have it. So, being that food is good, we get the food to the people who don’t have it and so do good.” Food banks are great because we all know what hunger feels like, and how wonderfully relieving food is. We picture the single mom whose deadbeat husband left her alone with 5 children. She’s just lost one of her two jobs and is not able to make ends meet. So she goes down to the food bank to feed her son Tim, a boy we might fancy is a lot like Tiny Tim: incredibly cute but hungry and on the verge of starvation. His mother has lost a lot of weight because all the food she can gather goes to the kids. We hope that our can of Pork N Beans goes to her.

OK, so maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But here’s the core of the story I stand by: we want to help people 1) who are not bad people, 2) who are working as hard as they can and 3) who need this aid temporarily to get back on their feet. In other words, when we give a can to a food bank, we have in mind something like the single mom; we don’t give cans hoping to help support the 23-year-old guy who lives in his Mom’s basement playing video games (Call of Duty, most likely).

Food banks have expanded to the point of now reaching 37 million Americans in 2010 [1]. Only 2% of Americans are underweight [2]. Even if every one of those was underweight because a lack of food (and not from age or disease), there are still 80% of those who get food from food banks (10% of Americans) who have enough calories.

So my question is this: do the recipients of food bank food meet our ideals? And if not, so what? Admittedly, this is a very crude analysis that leaves a lot out [3]. But I just want to raise the question: are food banks accomplishing what we want them to accomplish? Are the recipients who we want them to be? And if not, so what?

I have three major concerns with the food bank model. First, that it helps some bad people. Without doing any screening, food banks may be, for all they know, feeding Al Qaeda cells with their food. Second, that it is free. Those who can work, ought to work; food banks don’t ask for work. Third, that it rarely helps. The whole point of the food bank is to help people, and blind handouts are more likely to create dependency than actually improve the ultimate lot of the people they purport to help.

Many of my concerns were suggested or supported by an essay written by the second richest man and possibly (IMHO) the greatest philanthropist who ever lived: Andrew Carnegie. The essay was entitled “Wealth” and Carnegie argued that millionaires should donate most of their money to worthy philanthropic projects before they die. But he is careful to define ‘worthy’ and describe many of the ways giving can go wrong. I’ll be including quotations from his essay throughout mine. Here is one to begin with:

“These who, would administer wisely must, indeed, be wise, for one of the serious obstacles to the improvement of our race is indiscriminate charity.” – Carnegie [4]

Problem One: Food Banks Help Bad People
“He is the only true reformer who is as careful and as anxious not to aid the unworthy as he is to aid the worthy, and, perhaps, even more so, for in alms-giving more injury is probably done by rewarding vice than by relieving virtue.” – Carnegie

As is very clear from the Moral Law and explicit in the Bible, we’re not supposed to help bad people. Proverbs warns against joining up with sinners, “My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent” (Pro 1:10)[5]. Proverbs says: “But to the wicked, God says…When you see a thief, you join with him” (Psa 50:16,18). Paul instructs us: “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove [them]” (Eph 5:11). But it’s not just bad people that we need to avoid giving to. It’s also rich people: “Whoever oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth, or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty” (Pro 22:16).

My first concern with the food bank is that is has no safeguards against helping bad people. And I mean ‘bad’ people here very broadly. It helps people that are not good, are not working hard, and/or are not likely to ever stop using the food bank. The line-waiter in the average food bank isn’t questioned or asked about his condition or why he needs the food. An Al Qaeda member might need to support his local cell. An Italian mafia member may want to defray his gang’s food expenses.

But even beyond these exaggerations, there are other kinds of non-ideal food targets. Does the food bank want to support a drug addict’s habit? With less money going for food, more can go to heroin[6]. Does the food bank want to allow a 23-year-old living in his mother’s basement to continue to not look for a job? His mom won’t kick him out and now he has all the food he needs to keep playing Call of Duty. Does the food bank want to supplement the $60,000 income of a single man? He doesn’t have to buy groceries and now can afford a payment on a 7-series BMW instead of a 5-series.

With these three cases, the food bank has supported addiction, laziness and greed. Surely we would decry an organization that bought heroin for addicts, taught laziness to the youth and bought nicer cars for the already rich. But this is in effect what food banks are already doing. An organization, like an individual, ought to seek to do good and avoid evil. In food banks, almost no efforts have been made to avoid this evil.

Suggestion One: screen the people. Find out if you’re giving food to people you want to give food to. If you find out that you aren’t, set rules on who gets food.

Problem Two: Food Banks Are Free

“Neither the individual nor the race is improved by alms-giving.” – Carnegie

Men, if they are capable, ought to work. This is as clear a Moral and Biblical principal as one can find. God declares in Genesis, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). Paul, in describing the payment due to elders explains, “For the Scripture says, "You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain," and, "The laborer deserves his wages”” (1Ti 5:18). When he hears of men in Thessalonica not working he is outraged and declares, “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2Th 3:10). Even the poorest of the poor were expected to do work. In Leviticus, God establishes the law of gleaning; during a harvest, the reapers were forbidden from going through the field a second time to pick up what had fallen in the first pass. The poor were then allowed to themselves labor in the field, ‘gleaning’ the fallen grains for their food: "And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God" (Lev 23:22).

It is certainly true that some are incapable of work. There are those who are physically or mentally disabled who cannot earn enough to support themselves. There are people who have, like Job, been hit so hard by circumstance that they might be worthy of a direct gift of food. But these are few in number, and in our society, have some significant assistance by other governmental programs (e.g. Medicaid and Social Security).

This leaves us with able-bodied men and women not able to work. This state of non-work is a very difficult place to be in psychologically. Your independence is gone; you have to rely on others for your food. Your dignity is gone, because you are no longer contributing to society. And then you have to stand in line like a child in a school cafeteria waiting to be fed whatever slop the cafeteria happens to be dishing out. And the sting is even sharper when you remember that a year ago, you were standing in line at a buffet in a fancy hotel for a trade show before you lost your job.

Nobody wants to stand in a food line; it’s shameful. The food bank treats everyone as a cripple; it treats people who could earn their way in life as if they couldn’t, and thus further damages their waning confidence. It teaches that capable people not using their talents are worthy of reward. It teaches that some people, selected by their bad luck, are special and don’t have to obey the same rules or live up to the same expectations as everybody else. It teaches people that there is such a thing as a free lunch.

Suggestion Two: Do not give out free food to capable people; require them to do some work for their food. Doing work is ennobling; it helps to make a person virtuous. Specifically, it helps build the virtue of diligence and fight the vice of sloth (laziness). Laziness is an easy sin to fall into when you’re not working; diversion can become quite an addiction. Suggestion Two will also help solve Problem One; work is an excellent screen against bad people.

Problem Three: Food Banks Alone Don’t Help
“…the best means of benefiting the community is to place within its reach the ladders upon which the aspiring can rise…forms best calculated to do them lasting good.” – Carnegie

The first commandment is to love God. The second is: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mat 22:39). I think the biggest failing of the food bank is that it fails to love. Love entails many things, and is an incredibly important part of the human experience. But here I will only focus on two aspects of it: relationship and benefit. Whatever else it is, Christian love must be relational, and it must have the best interest of its object in mind. Food banks, as far as I can tell, are neither.

They are not relational in that it is mostly a system. It is a charity factory maximizing the number of meals served, shoveling food in the mouths of the poor like coal into a boiler. Nobody knows the people who get the food. Meals are given, they are not shared. How many poor people have been entertained in the homes of the food-bank donors? Even the volunteers of a food bank rarely have any relationship with those getting the food. How can we say we love people who we do not know?

Second, we fail to love our neighbors because we fail to do what is best for them. A box of food is not the solution. At its very best, it is stopgap measure. Most people who show up to a food bank need more than food. Nobody wants to go to a food bank. Some are unemployed; they need help finding a job. Some are addicts; they need help out of addiction. Some are depressed or anxious; they need to be given hope and soothed. Some are in spiritual darkness; they need the Light. Some are just downright lonely; they need someone to talk to.

Suggestion Three: Get to know the people standing in line, and try to help them out of their bad situations; show them love. This will be incredibly hard and take a lot more work, prayer, and manpower than shoveling food does. It will probably take a lot of people and partnership with a lot of other organizations. There are many buried talents standing in line at a food bank; figuring out how to dig them up ought to be one of the major functions of the food bank. These skills of the poor are like fields, and if properly dealt with, can be productive: “The fallow ground of the poor would yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice” (Pro 13:23). Love, at least Christian love, can transform what is presently a dehumanizing process into a life-giving one. Truly, “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fattened ox and hatred with it” (Pro 15:17).


Food banks are a very well-funded and well-supported segment of American charity. They have great potential to do good in a powerful way. But as it is, there are three major ways in which they are prevented from doing it. Firstly, they make few efforts to avoid doing evil. Secondly, they treat able-bodied people as if they weren’t. Thirdly, they don’t aspire to help people permanently. But these habits are not inherent; the model doesn’t need to be killed to be effective. The first two can be solved by simple screenings and work requirements. To solve the third problem, it requires a bit more. Actually it requires a lot more. It requires that people be treated like people, that relationships with poor people be forged, that the personal concerns of people be addressed, and that the best interest of the poor actually be pursued. In short, it requires love. Even if we can finally declare and loudly proclaim the end of hunger by efforts in the food bank, but we had not love, we would be a sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1Cr 13:3)
[3] The simplistic analysis at least leaves out: there being more to nutrition than calories, the slow rise of underweight proportion, relieving the pain of hunger pangs independently; the difficulties of unstable food supply (i.e. lack of “food security”)
 [5] All Bible quotations are from the ESV.
 [6] I don’t think it’s automatically wrong to give food to drug addicts. However, I do think most people would consider it a problem and so I mention it here. If all three problems were addressed, especially the third one, I think a food bank could be an incredible gateway out of addiction and should give food to drug addicts.