Choking on Food Charity

This is part one in a three-part series that explores new ways to end hunger in our communities that foster dignity, health and equality for everyone. Written by our Lead Partner Jonathan Bird.

It was a hard fact for me to swallow: the weekly free meal program for the homeless and near-homeless which I coordinated on behalf of my church was harming our vulnerable friends as much as it was helping them.

Designed as an alternative to soup kitchens and sandwich lines, our community meal had become a casualty of its own success, literally outgrowing its core usefulness.

In establishing our community meal, we had recognized those traditional responses to hunger were trying to be compassionate and well-meaning. But many relied to a shocking degree on donated food of uneven quality. Most served menus that were high in starches and sugars yet low in proteins, vitamins, and fiber – a poor diet for anyone and disastrous for the homeless and near-homeless, the majority of whom have chronic health complications or risk factors for diabetes.

We also knew (because we asked around on the street) that guests of these programs often felt less than human for being forced to wait long periods in line to eat in overcrowded and noisy conditions whatever was put in front of them as quickly as they could to make room for folks behind them. And always, always, there seemed an insurmountable wall between those offering help and those receiving it, whether it was professionals maintaining proper distance from clients or volunteers standing fixed in their positions behind serving tables.

We, however, wanted to do things with the poor instead of for them or to them. Our community meal sprouted out of a Christmas dinner that two struggling young moms put on as a gesture of gratitude for help they themselves had received. They wanted to give back, and good cooking was what they had to give. The rest of our little congregation pitched in, and since we all were surprised to discover how many of our neighbours needed a free meal and how much fun it was, we decided it made perfect sense to continue the hospitality.

So from the beginning our emphasis was on blurring the distinctions between “hosts” and “guests”; one of our bedrock convictions was that everyone has something to contribute. We wanted mutually transformative friendships to develop as people from all backgrounds shared responsibilities for pulling off each meal. Our goal was to move beyond traditional charity into community development.

Our cooks used favourite recipes from home, cued with feedback from our guests to offer a three-course dinner with vegetarian option. We bought our ingredients in local meat and produce shops, who gave us deals. We didn’t just serve the meal, we sat down and ate it leisurely with our guests. Clean up was everybody’s job; folks just pitched in without being asked. And the key to sustaining all this, financially and socially, was our determination to stay relatively small: 40 or 50 servings seemed about right for what we could handle and what was needed in the neighbourhood.

But now, several years on, we were routinely serving upwards of 150. There was scarcely room to move between tables in our small church hall. A line of waiting people stretched down the hall and out the front door. The atmosphere was loud, urgent. Hosts and guests alike were stressed. Budget and volunteer roster were strained. To be sure, the food was still brilliant and nutritious, and we had formed genuine friendships with a couple dozen core participants who were taking ownership of the meal in ways small and large alongside us. Yet I could no longer deny that for the large majority of our guests, we were just one more stop on the city’s dreary emergency food circuit. Week after week, we were making our guests more dependent and passive in the face of the root causes of their hunger and malnutrition.

A hard fact: our program had become a casualty of its own success, because word of a great meal spreads fast and far on the street. A far harder fact: we had unconsciously shifted focus from quality to quantity, from assets to needs, as we kept telling ourselves that “Jesus would never turn anyone away, so neither should we.”

I came then to two conclusions that now, a decade later, form part of the DNA of Planted.

Compassion inevitably reinforces the status quo unless it is constantly held accountable to a deeper charity (charitas = love) that refuses to rest until it has achieved justice for the beloved.
The only way to achieve justice for the hungry and malnourished – and also to balance the demands for quality and quantity – is through a long-term collaborative strategy among service providers and community groups, across multiple sectors, and throughout the region as a whole.

I’ll talk more about these conclusions in the next instalment of this three-part blog series.

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