Sweet Charity?: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement

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The resurgence of charity has to be a good thing, doesn't it? No, says sociologist Janet Poppendieck, not when stopgap charitable efforts replace consistent public policy, and poverty continues to grow. In Sweet Charity?, Poppendieck goes behind the scenes of America's hunger relief programs to assess the effectiveness of these home-grown efforts and to track the shift away from entitlements in the nation's response to poverty and hunger. Traveling the country to work in soup kitchens and gleaning centers, the ...
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Overview

The resurgence of charity has to be a good thing, doesn't it? No, says sociologist Janet Poppendieck, not when stopgap charitable efforts replace consistent public policy, and poverty continues to grow. In Sweet Charity?, Poppendieck goes behind the scenes of America's hunger relief programs to assess the effectiveness of these home-grown efforts and to track the shift away from entitlements in the nation's response to poverty and hunger. Traveling the country to work in soup kitchens and gleaning centers, the author reports from the front lines. We hear from the 'clients,' who endure endless humiliations as they receive meals too small to feed their families; from the well-meaning volunteers, whose enthusiasm cannot overcome the underlying causes of all the misery they witness; and from the directors, who find that their programs are becoming more and more 'successful' but wonder if they are not in some way contributing to the very problem they are working so hard to solve.
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Editorial Reviews

Milbank
We have been down this road before. . . .She began her project seven years ago, and changing times have made holes in her argument. . . .Sweet Charity is far more convincing as a sociological study than as a political action plan.
The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Tens of thousands of programs across the U.S. distribute free food to the hungry, a type of charity, according to the author, that 'comes with a price tag.' In a hard-hitting, radical analysis of a national crisis, Poppendieck, director of Hunter College's Center for the Study of Family Policy in New York City, calls the food programs a Band-Aid approach to deepening poverty, which counterproductively relieves pressure for more fundamental solutions by enabling government to shed its responsibility for the poor. Poppendieck, who has participated in or observed food distribution programs in nine states across the country, meticulously investigates the factors she cites as driving people to the soup kitchen or food pantry: low wages, unemployment, high housing costs, homelessness, disability and shrinking public-assistance benefits. She calls for a nationwide political movement to pursue an antipoverty, antihunger agenda vigorously through a reformed tax system, affordable housing, a stronger federal safety net and vastly improved public education and training. This is a book to prick the nation's conscience.
Library Journal
Poppendieck examines whether volunteerism, food pantries, and soup lines do more harm than good in this thought-provoking work.She explores the bitterness and frustration on both sides of the charity business of keeping people fed. During a bad economy, people 'did the right thing' by pulling together to help each other. In the current strong economic times, she reports, people question the number of homeless and hungry and wonder why things haven't improved. The author investigates whether our present system of volunteerism -- however charitable -- is actually contributing to the problem instead of solving it by letting the government off the hook. -- Sandra Isaacson, U.S. EPA Region VII Library, Las Vegas
Booknews
Argues that emergency food programs are hastening the substitution of private charity for public supports. Poppendieck (former Director of the Center for the Study of Family Policy, Hunter College) believes that the "resurgence of charity is at once a symptom and a cause of our society's failure to face up to and deal with the erosion of equality." She concludes that America cannot win a war on poverty with halfway measures and feel-good projects. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Milbank
We have been down this road before. . . .She began her project seven years ago, and changing times have made holes in her argument. . . .Sweet Charity is far more convincing as a sociological study than as a political action plan. -- The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A magnificent work of engaged scholarship analyzing hunger in modern America and the private and public responses to it. Poppendieck (Sociology/Hunter Coll.; Breadlines Knee Deep in Wheat) deals here with the seeming paradox that 'poverty grows deeper as our charitable responses to it multiply.' Amid the myriad problems of the poor, we have chosen as a society to focus on hunger. Private, volunteer responses have been vigorous and grown exponentially; today there are tens of thousands of food programs in the U.S., sponsored by organizations as diverse as the Boy Scouts, postal workers, religious institutions, and credit card companies. Clearly, we care, and Poppendieck does nothing to question the sincerity of such efforts, only their efficacy. She finds we have retreated to charity rather than confront the fundamental causes of hunger and poverty. Growing job insecurity in a time of globalizing and downsizing, reductions in the purchasing power of minimum wage and public assistance, and—most especially, for the author—the unrelenting attack on programs and entitlements for the poor, have created an inequality in the U.S. greater than at any time since WWII. Volunteer food programs thus attack only a symptom of poverty and at the same time contribute to this poverty. They do so by allowing us to focus our energy on immediate need; they sap the energy of activists who might otherwise devote more of their time to advocacy efforts on behalf of the poor. Finally, such food programs let government off the hook, allowing it to ignore its responsibility to foster a more just and equitable society. The author examines all of these themes in detail through documentary researchbut also through 'participant observation.' She works in soup kitchens and food banks. She interviews food recipients in their homes and neighborhoods. She brings to life the interactions of giver and receiver, creating a stunning tableau of kindness and desperation.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670880201
  • Publisher: Viking Adult
  • Publication date: 8/1/1998
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 9.28 (w) x 6.36 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Janet Poppendieck is a professor of sociology at Hunter College of the City University of New York and Assistant Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. She is the author of Breadlines Knee Deep in Wheat: Food Assistance in the Great Depression.

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Read an Excerpt

Sweet Charity?

Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement
By Janet Poppendieck

Penguin Books

Copyright © 1999 Janet Poppendieck
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0140245561


Chapter One

Charity for All

"ALL WEEK LONG I have been hearing about how they are going to go from door to door and that they hope lots of people give lots of food so they can collect. They are very much into it." Marge, the mother of two Cub Scouts, is filling me in on the home front side of the Boy Scouts' Scouting for Food canned goods drive as we sort and pack donated foods at sturdy tables set up in the parking lot of the Ciba-Geigy company cafeteria. It is warm and sunny, extraordinarily pleasant weather for New Jersey in November, so I have opted for the outdoor operation, but most of the packing is taking place inside the cafeteria, a long, low building on Ciba-Geigy's corporate campus in Toms River, New Jersey. Toms River is also home to the Jersey Shore Council of the Boy Scouts of America, which covers Ocean, Atlantic, and parts of Burlington and Cape May Counties. Each November since 1988, the Jersey Shore Council has sponsored one of the nation's most successful drives. The Scouts distribute empty bags, preprinted with an explanation and a list of needed food items, door-to-door on a Saturday in early November and pick up the filled bags and bring them to central collection points a week later. Marge has brought three of her children to help with the sorting and repacking. There are two sons who are Webelos, the last stage of Cub scouting before they become full-fledged Boy Scouts, and her daughter, aged seven, who, according to her mom, "is just packing her little heart away."

    "This is their fifth year doing it," she explains. "I think they look forward to it. As an incentive, Great Adventure [a nearby amusement park] has a big rally where they give them a day at the park for free.... It gets them geared up for it." Six Flags Great Adventure not only hosts the pep rally; for the remainder of the season, it offers half-price tickets to anyone donating a can. This year the weather has been unusually sunny and warm and business has been good; the haul from Great Adventure is larger than usual. The food collected will go to food pantries and prepared-meal programs throughout the four counties.

    I ask Marge if her children understand where the food is going. "I think so," she replies. "They hear very often on TV about the homeless. This brings it more to light. They realize that people are in need, especially for the baby food. My son asked me about all this baby food. 'Don't the mamas have money?' and I had to explain to him that 'no, not everybody is as fortunate as we are, to give their children the things they need.'" She goes on to articulate a feeling that I have heard from other parents who make special efforts to involve their children in emergency food projects, the hope for an antidote to the selfishness that sometimes seems built into their children's lives: "I think it is unfortunate that it is all give-me, give-me, give-me, and this gives them a sense of perspective. A lot of more fortunate kids, they have money and everything they ask for is suddenly given to them." The Scouting for Food drive, she feels, gives them a chance to give something back.

    The 20,000 pounds from Great Adventure are just the tip of the iceberg. The logistics of this particular drive are impressive, to say the least. Ten thousand scouts and nearly three thousand adult leaders in more than two hundred scouting units are involved. Ten collection points around the four-county area are equipped with truck trailers, loaned for the occasion by a local hardware company that also supplies three rigs and drivers to haul the filled containers to the central collection point at Ciba-Geigy. A communications company lends cellular phones so that volunteers can alert a dispatcher when a particular container is nearing capacity, and a rig can be detailed to bring it in, dropping off an empty replacement where the volume warrants. Meanwhile, Scout troops and Cub packs located near the Ciba-Geigy campus can take their collections directly to the company cafeteria. A uniformed Scout directs station wagons, minivans, and pickup trucks to one side of the cafeteria parking lot; the other is reserved for the eighteen-wheelers.

    There is only one loading dock for the cafeteria building, so a Ciba-Geigy executive has designed an ingenious system for unloading the large trucks. A forklift equipped with a platform lifts several Scouts with empty shopping carts, loaned for the weekend by a supermarket chain whose president is the drive's honorary chairperson, to the level of the truck. The boys empty the bags into the shopping carts; when the carts are full, the forklift operator lowers the platform to ground level, and the boys and their companions hustle the filled carts into the cafeteria while a new team of Scouts begins emptying bags into a new set of shopping carts. Special ramps have been provided by a moving company to ease the carts down the three or four widely spaced steps between the parking lot and the cafeteria entrance.

    Inside the cafeteria, a growing pandemonium drowns out the background music. Many of the people who come by to drop off food stay to help with the packing. At long tables pushed end to end, volunteers sort the goods into predetermined categories: "Veggies and Soups," "Fruits and Juices" and "Meat/Fish/Prepared Foods," and pack them into boxes, assembled and labeled early that morning and stacked in precarious towers around the edges of the room. The plan calls for culling out any products in less durable containers--rice, pasta, and the glass jars that show up every year despite the requests to the contrary--and any baby foods or other specialized items, for separate packing. The atmosphere is festive, with an undertone of controlled chaos. Shouts of "We need more boxes," and "Where does tomato paste go?" surface among the general din of shopping carts clanking, misplaced children crying, and a pile of boxes collapsing as a very short Scout pulls ones from the bottom. "It is kind of overwhelming," one volunteer suggests. "There is just so much work going on, so many people in a room which is probably too small for all the goings-on, but then to see that there are this many people willing to donate their time and do stuff, it makes you feel that there are still some good people left." By midmorning, the good people number in the hundreds, not only Boy Scouts, but grandparents, parents, siblings, whole families, and unaffiliated helpers as well. The Scouts conduct the drive, but the packing is obviously a community affair. Ciba-Geigy is providing refreshments for all comers, and as the morning progresses, the smell of burgers and franks begins to overwhelm that of coffee and doughnuts.

    Once the cans are sorted and boxed by category, pallets, each containing about two dozen boxes of a single type of food, are assembled, covered with shrink-wrap, and transferred to a warehouse, also on the Ciba-Geigy campus, where they will be stored and distributed as needed to area food pantries and meal programs. Local pantries will come to the warehouse to pick up food when they need it, take it back to their own headquarters, unpack it, sort it into their own categories, and repack it into pantry bags for needy families to take home. I plan to leave Ciba-Geigy at sunset, but I understand that the packing fest often continues until nearly midnight and sometimes resumes the next day. "Last year we came around the same time," a father told me at midmorning, "as soon as our immediate food drive was done.... We were here until eight or nine o'clock that night. Every time we were getting ready to leave, another tractor trailer would come in, so they would ask those who could to stay. So we did. My son had a blast. He thought it was a lot of fun and he felt he was helping people and he wanted to come back this year."

    The Jersey Shore Council's Scouting for Food drive has all the ingredients for success. It has committed, experienced leaders with a finely tuned understanding of the project's complex logistics. It has highly visible corporate sponsors that lend credibility among potential donors as well as necessary material support. It has the active participation of the local media for the essential publicity. It asks the Scouts to do something that is well within their capability, and provides them with the ingredients they need--preprinted flyers and bags and adult transportation--to do it. It has the cooperation of other civic organizations and the good will of the populace. Further, it has roles for the minimally involved donor and the casual volunteer. People who simply fill up their bags and get them to their doorsteps by 9:00 A.M. can share in the sense of community solidarity, and someone who wakes up on the morning of the second Saturday in November with the urge to help can wander over to Ciba-Geigy and lend a hand--no advance commitment necessary. An estimated three hundred community volunteers helped with the sorting and packing, adding their efforts to those of the nearly thirteen thousand Scouts and Scout leaders who participated in various phases of the project. Beginning with the pep rally at Great Adventure and continuing through the music and refreshments at Ciba-Geigy, it creates an upbeat, festive atmosphere that makes good deeds fun. And it is the quintessential good cause: food for the hungry. The drive netted more than 280,000 pounds of donated food.


A National Pastime

Fighting hunger has become a national pastime. Millions of Americans are involved. Early in 1992, a polling firm hired by Kraft General Foods, on behalf of the sponsors of the Medford Declaration to End Hunger in America, conducted a survey of 1,000 randomly selected voters to assess public attitudes toward hunger in the United States. The results were clear: three-fifths of those surveyed thought that hunger was a "very serious" problem in the United States, and 90 percent agreed that "there are significant numbers of people in the United States who are hungry and don't have enough to eat." The study's clients welcomed the overall findings, which included not only the widespread perception that hunger is a serious problem but also the belief that it is solvable, and the willingness to pay additional taxes in order to eliminate it. Possibly the most significant finding, however, was one that drew only limited attention: 79 percent of those interviewed answered "yes" to a question that asked "Have you, personally, done anything to help those people who don't have enough to eat in your community such as being a volunteer at a soup kitchen, contributing food to a distribution center and so forth?"

    This is a remarkable finding, whether we believe it or not. Either an extraordinarily high percentage of registered voters in this country has contributed something to the support of a local food program, or an extraordinarily high percentage of respondents felt sufficiently strongly that they ought to have done so that they were willing to lie to an anonymous pollster on the telephone. We have known for a long time that Americans contribute a great deal of time and money to voluntary-sector activities, but for nearly four-fifths of respondents to indicate that they had tried to do something about one particular problem seemed, well, incredible.

    When we begin to consider the myriad opportunities to contribute, however, the credibility quotient goes up. All our respondent has to have done, after all, is contribute to a food drive--by leaving a bag on the doorstep for the Boy Scouts in the fall, or the letter carriers in the spring, or by dropping a can in a convenient barrel outside the grocery store. Or perhaps our respondent has "rounded up for hunger" at the supermarket checkout counter--rounded up her bill to the next nearest dollar with the change going to help an anti-hunger organization--or "checked out hunger" at a supermarket of another denomination. Maybe the respondent's child has asked for a can or two to contribute to a collection at school or Sunday school. Or a neighbor's teenager has walked in a hunger walkathon and our respondent has agreed to be a sponsor. Perhaps there was a drive at the office in conjunction with a holiday party. Or maybe the respondent just used her American Express card between Thanksgiving and Christmas, automatically joining the Charge Against Hunger, whether she meant to or not. Giving to food charities has been made so easy, so convenient, that it is probable that a very large number of Americans has contributed in some way. As an American Express advertisement put it just after Christmas, "You may have helped and not even know it."

    You may even have had fun doing it. Like the Boy Scouts' trip to Great Adventure, elements of recreation have been added to many anti-hunger projects. Bikers can pedal against hunger, film buffs can attend a Canned Film Festival, concertgoers can secure reduced-price admission by bringing a can, and gourmets can Dine Out to Help Out. In more than a hundred communities across the country, you can help the hungry by attending a Taste of the Nation buffet, at which top-ranked chefs offer samples of their work; the chefs donate their time and food, and the price of admission goes to Share Our Strength (SOS) which raises and dispenses funds for anti-hunger activity on a national--in fact, an international--scale. In 1994, Taste of the Nation raised $3.7 million for hunger relief. A spin-off called Taste of the NFL invites people attending the Super Bowl to sample the fare of the chefs of the host city, again for a hefty contribution; players participate by doing promotions, and both chefs and fans join the long list of food program supporters. Last year's Taste of the NFL raised $400,000. If your recreations are more literary, another SOS production, Writer's Harvest, sponsors readings by well-known authors in communities and on college campuses across the country. Writers are not yet as popular as chefs: last year's harvest raised $40,000 in 150 cities and towns. This list could continue at great length, because fund-raising for hunger has elicited the talents of some exceptionally creative people. They have made it extraordinarily easy and rewarding to do something about hunger in America.

    Not all participants opt for the easy or glamorous roles, of course. Some of the people who answered "yes" to the pollster's survey may have been among the million or more Americans who actively volunteered in a soup kitchen or food pantry. The emergency food system is dependent upon volunteer labor. A recent survey in New York City, for example, found that more than four-fifths of the people working in soup kitchens and food pantries were volunteers, who accounted for just over two-thirds of the hours worked. The median pantry in the Second Harvest National Research Study conducted in 1993 had twelve volunteers during the year, who gave an average of a bit over fifty-two hours each. Soup kitchens are more labor intensive than pantries, and the kitchens in the survey had a median of forty volunteers over the course of the year, who reported an average of about twenty-five hours apiece. Such averages, of course, reflect not only the regulars who come week after week and month after month, but also the casual volunteer who helps out once a year to serve Thanksgiving dinner or put up new shelves in the pantry. But casual volunteers, like occasional donors, contribute to the overall size of the phenomenon and its capacity to touch the life of the larger society.

    The significance of all this giving and volunteering extends far beyond the generic celebration of voluntarism and compassion to which politicians so frequently give voice. It is this widespread diffusion of involvement, however limited, that allows the emergency food phenomenon to function as a "moral safety valve," to relieve the discomfort that people feel when confronted with evidence of privation and suffering amid the general comfort and abundance, thus reducing the pressure for more fundamental action. The sheer magnitude of community anti-hunger activity, and the widespread publicity essential to such efforts, create images of food drives and fund-raisers, of kitchens and pantries and food banks and food rescue programs, that permeate the culture. These images reassure us that no one will starve in our community, that the problem is being addressed. Few of us stop to assess the size of the problem or measure the sufficiency of the response; the illusion of effective community action lingers, long after the canned goods are depleted. The specific dynamics of pervasive involvement merit explanation and help to illuminate the safety valve process. Why has the emergency food phenomenon been so successful in eliciting the effort and contributions of so many Americans? Why do so many volunteer?


Something for Everyone

The pastor of a church in Maine explained how his food pantry obtained its supplies from the food bank, which was located several hours away. A regional supermarket chain, Shop and Save, picks up supplies for area pantries at the Good Shepherd Food-Bank in Lewiston and brings them to the local store, and "as soon as the food gets there they give us a call and we blast over there with old men and pickup trucks and load it and bring it back over here. That's a great phenomenon--the old men with pickup trucks." It is a scenario that is repeated, with endless local variations, all over the nation, every day. The newspaper image of an emergency food volunteer depicts a person preparing food or dishing it up in a soup kitchen or packing bags in a food pantry, but the emergency food system offers many others avenues of participation as well. Food must be procured--or even produced--and transported as well as prepared and served, and the space in which 'all this occurs must be equipped and maintained. Funds must be raised, bills must be paid, and other volunteers must be coordinated. As one volunteer at a soup kitchen in Immokalee, Florida, put it, "There is something for everybody." And kitchens and pantries, food banks and food rescue programs have an extraordinary capacity to absorb and put to use whatever a volunteer has to offer. You may start out by washing the dishes and end up doing the books. As Ken Hecht, a food policy advocate in California, recounted:

I am a lawyer, and I spent twenty-five years litigating cases in a number of different poverty areas.... Then I went to work in a foundation and was there for three or four years. When I left there I wanted to do something that was exactly the opposite of working in a foundation where you were working behind somebody who was working behind somebody who was several layers removed from anybody who looked like he needed any help, and a friend of mine suggested that I walk down the hill from my house and go to a soup kitchen. And about a month after I left the foundation I walked down the hill and went to a soup kitchen and did onions. So I'm now good at onions. It absolutely satisfied everything I wanted to do at that moment, and as time went on I became more and more involved in the work in the soup kitchen and obviously had some experience that could be useful to them in terms of stabilizing, organizing their work, so I became just as involved in the administration and fund-raising parts of the program as well, and still am.

    Hecht's experience illustrates several of the factors that help to make soup kitchens and food pantries such magnets for participation. In the first place, there are few barriers to entry. You do not need a lengthy training course to become a volunteer in a soup kitchen or food pantry, and in many places, you don't need an appointment, either. A prospective volunteer can just walk down the hill and start doing onions, or drop by Ciba-Geigy and help sort the donations. Everything you need to know, you learned in kindergarten: carrying chairs, pouring juice, setting the table, peeling carrots. Since little training or orientation is needed, a volunteer can easily try it out on an experimental basis. "Word of mouth is our best advertisement. People who come here and enjoy it tell somebody else. And they come and see what it's like and then they'll stay," Joyce Hoeschen, one of the founders of the Bath Area Food Bank Soup Kitchen, described her volunteer recruitment to me. Her husband and cofounder chimed in: "They might be a little skittish to begin with, but by the end of the day, they say 'I'm hooked! Can't I come more often?'"

    For those who find the experience rewarding, there are always new tasks and new opportunities to contribute. Hecht's work in the Haight-Ashbury Kitchen led to the idea of forming the San Francisco Anti-Hunger Coalition, for which he helped to prepare first a concept paper and then a grant application. You don't have to be a lawyer, however, or a foundation insider, to put your cumulative work experience and life history to work on behalf of an emergency food program. One of the biggest boosts to Hecht's efforts to initiate a coalition was an idea from a seafood purveyor, convicted of dealing illegally in abalone, who was doing his "community service" sentence at the Haight-Ashbury Kitchen. Noting the kitchen's constant search for sources of protein, he told the director that there was always left-over fish at the piers at the end of the week. Often, the market value of frozen seafood did not justify the cost of freezing the fish, and it could not be kept over the weekend as a fresh product, so it was dumped. Hecht and his colleagues began collecting the leftover seafood and distributing it to other kitchens; for Hecht, it was an organizing tool:

The other thing we did that stimulated the coalition's coming into existence was to take advantage of a supply of excess fish that was coming into the piers. We've been using that in our program, expanding the pick-up of fish, and started using the fish all over town, demonstrating without having to say it that there's a lot of advantage to working together. I have no doubt that that was, and remains, an inducement to working together.

When some of the kitchens proved reluctant to accept the free seafood because their volunteer cooks were unaccustomed to preparing fish in quantity, Hecht and his associate, Ed Bolen, recruited seafood chefs from some of San Francisco's leading hotels and restaurants to demonstrate the art of large-volume seafood preparation. Chowder has become a staple on the San Francisco soup kitchen circuit, and seafood purveyors, fishing boat captains, and seafood chefs have become part of the network of donation and participation that sustains emergency food in San Francisco.


A Network of Supply

San Francisco may be unique, but it is not alone. Nearly every kitchen and pantry, and absolutely every food bank and food rescue program, is the focal point of a web of participation, with its own network of suppliers, supporters, contributors, and volunteers. The supply end of the emergency food chain provides an enormous variety of opportunities for volunteer work and donation. Some people literally produce food for soup kitchens and food pantries--children's gardening programs in or outside schools, gardens tended by the inmates of correctional facilities, community gardens, camp gardens, church gardens. The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts runs a 63-acre organic farm with the help of volunteers and members of its Community Supported Agriculture project. The American Garden Writers Association, a professional organization of journalists with an estimated combined audience of 78 million people, has recently undertaken a campaign called Plant a Row for the Hungry, and has enlisted a seed company to offer a free packet of vegetable seeds to each participating gardener. In Mount Carmel, Connecticut, Bill Liddell grows 49,000 pounds of vegetables each year on the three-quarter-acre plot that he farms intensively, assisted by donated seeds and volunteer labor, specifically for the purpose of supplying food for the hungry of Connecticut.

    More typical, however, are donations of food that was originally intended for other purposes--for the market, for home consumption, even for decoration. Gleaners in Miami harvest citrus from trees planted at race tracks and golf courses for Miami's Daily Bread Food Bank, and many gleaning groups will bring ladders and buckets and harvest the fruit in your backyard if you invite them. By the end of the eighties, Project Glean in Concord, California, was harvesting a quarter of a million pounds annually of vegetables, including onions, eggplants, tomatoes, and corn, and fruits, including plums, oranges, tangerines, lemons, limes, grapefruits, nectarines, and pomegranates. A core group of thirty regular volunteers was supplemented by the efforts of Scout troops, church youth groups, mother-daughter teams from the National Charity League, senior citizens organizations, people from drug rehabilitation centers, and offenders doing court-ordered community service. Beth Coulter is a slim, energetic woman who volunteers as a cook at the soup kitchen run by the Bath Area Food Bank in Bath, Maine. The food bank is actually a pantry, established before the terminology sorted itself out; the soup kitchen is a subsidiary project and is run on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at the Knights of Columbus Hall. Ms. Coulter was cooking the day I visited, but she took the time to tell me about her experience with gleaning because she was so excited about the outcome:

Last summer I contacted a couple of farmers in the area ... after they had picked their crops, we asked if we could go in and glean the fields... it's a domino theory. It looks like we're taking leftovers and pretty soon the farmer's saying "Could you use a couple of bushels of tomatoes? Could you use a bushel of cucumbers?" We went up to get a few tomatoes and ended up with fourteen kinds of produce from one farm. We went to other farms and, when it was time for frost to set in, they said "Come and dig all the carrots you want." We ended up with eighteen bushels of carrots.

I asked how they could handle so many, and learned that one form of participation can elicit another.

We move it because we've got great ladies... one lady made pickles; I made pickled beets. We froze carrots; we blanched and froze, we canned, we did all kinds of things. Peeling the carrots and cleaning them was a major chore. It was the end of September or the beginning of October and we brought them to an elementary school and the fifth grade took it on as a project to wash the carrots and peel them for us. It was incredible.... We often talk about the poor people and the hungry and homeless, and we burden a lot of children with this kind of information, and what can they do about it, except be sad. But this was a hands-on thing the children could do.


Old and Young and Everything in Between

Hands-on things that children can do, the availability of work that entire families can do together or that school and religious groups can undertake, is another factor that helps to account for the tremendous appeal of emergency food programs. Ginna Lockie was coordinating the volunteers on behalf of the North Naples United Methodist Church on one of the days that I visited the kitchen at Immokalee; "my kids ... have actually all been out here to the soup kitchen on days when they don't have school," she reported. "They really enjoy it. They are learning, at a very early age, that we need to help other folks outside our home." For individual families, as well as for organized groups like the Boy Scouts, emergency food programs create opportunities for teaching compassion.

    Of course the same characteristics that make the work suitable to newcomers and children might also tend to make it, eventually, boring--not in a once-a-year event like the Boy Scouts drive, but on a regular basis. Even the simplest and most routine tasks, however, can be made enjoyable by social interaction, and this is a common characteristic of almost all of the emergency food volunteer work I observed. Packing bags in a food pantry or preparing a soup kitchen meal or labeling boxes at Ciba-Geigy provides a fine opportunity to catch up on local news, to discuss sports, to talk a little politics, or a little theology. The more repetitious the task, the more conducive it seems to be to humor, banter, teasing.

    The sociability factor is also a characteristic of much of the volunteer work available one notch up the emergency food ladder, at the food bank. A significant portion of the food that is donated to food banks is what food bankers and grocers call "salvage": dented cans, products with some cosmetic problem on the packaging, products that have been slightly crushed or torn. The new scanning technology permits grocers to obtain credit for such unsalable products by culling them from the shelves and sending them to a reclamation center, where their bar codes are scanned and credit is assigned to retailers from the manufacturers. At the reclamation centers, leaking containers are generally pulled out, but the rest is simply boxed, and if the manufacturer designates, shipped to a food bank, where it must of course be further sorted to remove any hazardous items. Sorting salvage is one of the primary tasks to which food bank volunteers are set. The sorting process does require some training, and it lacks the variety characteristic of work at the kitchen or pantry level, but it makes up for that in camaraderie. It is also the sort of activity for which whole groups from schools, churches, or businesses can be recruited. Bill Bolling is the founder and director of the. Atlanta Community Food Bank, one of the oldest and most respected in the nation; he described the volunteers who come to the bank to help with sorting as well as with warehouse and office tasks:

Old, young and everything in between. We use students, we use senior citizens and retirees during the day, because everybody else is working, we use professionals in the evening--at least four nights a week we have groups till nine at night. We have people come in their BMWs and three-piece suits and come in and change clothes into their blue jeans and work a two-hour shift, three-hour shift after work. And they mostly come as groups, not individuals. We use a lot of church and synagogue religious communities on weekends and for specialized kinds of food drives. We're seeing now, and this is real precedent-setting in Atlanta, we're seeing companies send employees on company time down as a group with their department managers, and they come down and volunteer.

The organized group participation phenomenon is visible in the fund-raising and food procurement aspects of the emergency food system as well as in the sorting and packing and processing. A pantry that can enlist the support of a civic organization, youth program, school, church, or business is likely to obtain far more than it would from simply deploying collection barrels, however strategically placed. In tiny Benson, Arizona, a town of a few thousand not far from Tombstone, the food pantry, which goes by the name of the Benson Food Bank, has nurtured all of these relationships, The vice president of the organization, Jan Olsen, explains her strategy:

In November, I go to the mayor and I ask him to declare November "Food Bank Month," which he does. We've got the certificate up on the wall. I divide the month into separate categories, like one week will be church collections, one week will be civic collections, another one will be the Scouts, the other one will be the school children. And I target in on those and make special arrangements for those people to have special collections during that month... food and/or money.

The schools have proven especially responsive; the local elementary school sponsors a contest among classrooms to see which room can bring in the most food. The contest is a big hit with the kids, even though the principal has ruled that they may not collect prizes for their winning efforts: "We want them to give from their hearts, not for an award," Olsen told me. One of the biggest sources in tiny Benson came as a surprise to the food pantry board. The local branch of Arizona Electric Power Company called up one day to see if the pantry could send someone to pick up "a few items." The utility had held a contest among its departments and produced three station-wagon loads of food; "That was three station wagons ... filled right to the roof."


Facilities and Equipment

Soup kitchens, food pantries, and food banks all require facilities and equipment, and the creation and maintenance of space offers another whole arena for participation. Hawley Botchford, the director of the Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida, succeeded in eliciting thousands of dollars' worth of donated plumbing, carpentry, and the like from skilled craftspeople, and thousands of dollars' worth of equipment and supplies from local businesses when the food bank rehabilitated an old building to serve as its office and warehouse. His story of how the building came to be painted is typical of his experience. He had canvassed the local paint distributors for a paint donation with no success, but he had succeeded in talking a representative of Sherwin-Williams into "just coming over to see if our numbers were right on what we thought we were going to need to paint the building." Meanwhile, Sherwin-Williams had the contract to supply paint for a church that was being refurbished nearby. As Botchford recounts:

Well, we firmly believe, being good Presbyterians, that while the guys were mixing the paint, God smacked one of their hands and they dumped too much of one color into the mix and the church refused it because it was not the color they had picked. All of a sudden, Sherwin-Williams had fifty-five gallons of exterior premium paint, and they called and said, "Are you fussy about what color the outside of your building's going to be?" and I said, "Not a bit." So they said, "All right, we've got your exterior paint," and we had the audacity to say "What about the inside?" And, sure enough, they came through. Now we've got the paint and I figured we could get. volunteers to paint the inside, the outside's a little trickier. So we went over to where they were painting the church ... and started talking to them. We said, "Look--your equipment--and the color's so close you wouldn't even have to wash it out, just pour our paint into it and do our building." And they did it. They came over and started here one day and they were finished by lunch. And they primed it and painted the entire building--it was a painting contractor--no charge for that.

    Botchford's ability to corral contributions of labor and materials is probably exceptional, but all over the country emergency food programs have been the beneficiaries of building materials, refrigeration and storage capacity, kitchen equipment, and the like. Soup kitchens and food pantries, after all, are unlikely to be choosy about the appearance of their equipment. Have almond and avocado gone out of style for appliances, replaced by black and chrome? It doesn't matter much in the church basement. And since donations of equipment often come with the skilled time and effort required to install them, they draw another group of people into the web of participation and create another group with a sense of ownership in the project, another group of people who could have answered "yes" to the pollster's survey.

    We will probably never know just how much has been given to the emergency food system when time and talent and the use of specialized skills and tools are factored into the equation. We have difficulty even with gifts of food. If you are a large corporation donating a truckload of breakfast cereals to a food bank, you may find it well worth the trouble to record the donation and file for a tax deduction, and the food bank will happily provide you with all the verification you need. If you are a backyard gardener who has responded to the American Garden Writers Association's plea to Plant a Row for the Hungry, or simply an amateur who has nurtured an overabundance of zucchini, you may or may not think it appropriate and worthwhile to seek a record of your donation for tax purposes. Certainly, few of the millions of people who Check Out Hunger at the local supermarket or contribute canned goods to the Boy Scouts drive itemize these contributions in their tax returns. IRS data, therefore, are not a very good source of information about donations to emergency food programs. Neither are the surveys of giving, most of which do not collect much information on gifts in kind. Nor are the programs themselves, many of which are small-scale, grassroots, low-budget operations that can barely get the dishes washed and the head counts turned in to the food bank. Since the vast majority of these programs are affiliated with religious institutions, they are exempt from the reporting requirements with which many other nonprofits must comply; they are not required to file the Form 990s from which much of the data in the National Taxonomy of Tax Exempt Organizations is derived. Like many nonprofit organizations, they may provide donors who request them with blank receipt forms to be filled in with the donors' estimate of the value of goods contributed, but they are unlikely to keep extensive records of their own. Clearly, we do not know how much has been given to these organizations in the form of money, food, supplies, and time, but we know it is a lot.


Cash versus Food

Cash donations are more likely to be recorded than gifts in kind, and cash has other advantages as well. After all, cash replaced barter precisely because cash conferred vastly increased flexibility. You can readily convert cash into other inputs you might need--electricity, for example, or the services of an accountant or an exterminator--but you cannot readily convert donated foods into such services. And even when the donor specifies that the gift be used for food, donating cash may be a more productive strategy. Joyce Jacobs at the Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida in Fort Myers has a set of glossy photos that show what you could purchase for donation to a food program with ten dollars spent at the grocery store, and what the same ten dollars, spent at the food bank, could provide. The second picture is much, much larger than the first, because the food in the food bank is essentially free, except for the handling fee, generally called "shared maintenance." At a shared maintenance rate of fourteen cents a pound, the food bank can provide more than seventy-one pounds of food for a ten-dollar donation. For one dollar, which would buy the average panhandler two cups of coffee on the streets of New York, a donor can expect somewhere between seven and ten pounds of food from the food bank for a recipient kitchen or pantry. Cash is giving canned goods a good run for the money.

    If convenience and efficiency were the only operant principles, cash would certainly have the edge over canned goods, but these are clearly not the only considerations. Donations of actual food have several advantages over collections of money. In the first place, they serve symbolic functions. Offerings of "first fruits" are traditional in many religions, and they are laden with deep ritual significance. It is not uncommon for offerings of canned goods to be brought to the altar in congregations that support pantries or kitchens. Some churches collect for the month or so before Thanksgiving and then decorate the chancel with a display of donated food. This is precisely the sort of historically and emotionally significant activity in which congregants of all ages can participate with understanding. The medium is the message.

    The same characteristic helps to explain the attraction of emergency food activities for youth-serving organizations and civic groups. Donations of money may be easier to handle and more efficient, but canned food drives provide a visceral connection between the general abundance of the society and the needs of poor families. They educate as they collect. "We are very interested in getting the food collected because there are people out there, kids and older people particularly, and whole families that are going hungry.... Beyond that, we are in the business of training youth. One of our goals is, through this project, to make youth aware that hunger is a problem in the community and then to give them an outlet to help do something about hunger," explained Jere Williams, the executive director of the Jersey Shore Council of the Boy Scouts of America. The BSOA could send its troops out to collect money door-to-door, but it just wouldn't have the same educational impact on the Scouts.

    They probably wouldn't get as much, either. Some people prefer giving cans to giving cash. Giving food assures the donor that food is what the recipient will receive. Many people who are generous with their time and treasure on behalf of emergency food programs are highly skeptical of the motivations and skills of the beneficiaries of their largesse. By giving food, they believe that they are making sure that the gift will enhance nutrition and well-being, not end up as a pint of Night Train or a pair of trendy sneakers. Further, they can make sure that the gift is a nutrient-dense commodity such as peanut butter or beans, not a frivolous snack. "We watch for nutrition," the director of the Willcox, Arizona, food pantry told me. "We want to make sure that they get balance in their bodies. Sure, we've got cake mix in there, cookies, candy. Sure, those are all things they can have, that you should have, but they've also got the basics. Everybody gets a bag of beans."

    It is not just a lack of faith in the culinary skills or spending priorities of recipients, however, that explains the heavy reliance on food donations in the emergency food system. Emergency food programs do not see--or portray--themselves as solutions to the problem of poverty. They are, very specifically, responses to hunger. Many feel they have done their job if they relieve urgent hunger, and they invite others to join them in that specific and manageable task by contributing food. Critics of the food drive approach recognize this as well. "I hate canned food drives," Hawley Botchford told me. "I really do, because it lets people off the hook. It gives them a warm, fuzzy feeling to give you a little bag of cans which, in the whole scope of the things, is meaningless. It's an easy way out. I don't want people to have the easy way out. I want them to look at the whole problem and what are we really dealing with .... I want to know why people are in need, and why they continue to be in need." Botchford went on to lay out one of the persistent dilemmas of the emergency food project, the tension between pursuing more fundamental solutions to poverty and meeting the immediate need. "In the meantime, we've got little kids that are growing up and, if they are going to reach their potential, if they're going to learn, if they're going to become productive parts of the system, they need to be fed, they need decent diets... and when we throw away as much as we do, then we're missing the boat there."

[CHAPTER ONE CONTINUES ...]

Continues...


Excerpted from Sweet Charity? by Janet Poppendieck Copyright © 1999 by Janet Poppendieck. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction 1
Ch. 1 Charity for All 20
Ch. 2 Who Eats Emergency Food? 49
Ch. 3 The Rise of Emergency Food 81
Ch. 4 Institutionalization: From Shoestring to Stability 107
Ch. 5 The Uses of Emergency Food 141
Ch. 6 The Seductions of Charity 173
Ch. 7 What's Wrong with Emergency Food? The Seven Deadly "Ins" 201
Ch. 8 Charity and Dignity 230
Ch. 9 The Ultimate Band-Aid 256
Conclusion 288
Notes 319
Selected Bibliography 341
Index 345
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