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On looking gift horses in the teeth, and other thoughts about charitable giving

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So you want to support your local food bank?

Great! We need your help. But first, a story.

My grandfather was a preacher, usually at small rural churches in southwestern Ontario. His "salary" was unpredictable, paid out of every fourth week's offering -- more like a stand-up comic's than the wise and venerable shepherd of his flock. My grandparents were poor, and in obvious ways dependent on their congregation.

One Saturday night, as my grandma was finishing bathing her five children, a congregant arrived bearing gifts. More specifically, five old laying hens, no longer producing eggs but still, this congregant assured my grandmother, "good eating." The hens were alive, and so my grandma had to kill them, unburden them of head and feathers, clean them, and bag them for the freezer.

Good eating or not, I know that my grandma wanted to do other things with her Saturday night, like sleep. I know this because she told me, and I know that she was terribly frustrated by this experience because she told me this as well. I have heard her speak badly of another living thing once: our now-deceased dog Guido (don't ask), who often gave her overeager and toothy kisses.

Now, I know you are not supposed to look a gift horse in the teeth -- my grandma told me this, too. But, and here I think the moral of my grandma's story is quite obvious, sometimes you should. You should, when people gift you their garbage, or when their gifts betray a complete or willful ignorance of your life circumstances. When Homer Simpson buys Marge a bowling ball engraved with his name, she is upset. She does not bowl, and this is not a gift for her.

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Source: http://bit.ly/1RhOlGv

So think of my grandma or Marge Simpson next time you want to donate to, or organize a food drive for your local food bank. What do you really like to eat? Do you prefer canned soup or fresh vegetables to make your own from scratch? This is a tricky thing -- I've written elsewhere about the difficulties involved in "putting yourself in another's shoes" -- but it's necessary. The truckload of crispy fried onions three months past the best-before date is, for us, like my grandma's hens or Marge's bowling ball.

So reach out to your local food bank or community kitchen or garden or men's hostel and ask them what they need. A local business called us a couple years ago with that question. We said "peanut butter," and for the next six or seven months each person who came to us, and who wanted it, got peanut butter. Today, as I write this, we only have enough peanut butter for the largest families who visit us.

Other times, people don't call. These are often the same food drive co-ordinators who introduce incentives or issue challenges, like Who can donate the most kilograms of food? Seems simple, seems harmless, seems like you need some way to say which team won (one team must win!). Without further qualification -- fresh whole foods only, for example -- what happens is what you might expect to happen: people buy the cheapest and/or heaviest food items they can find. This is not how most of us shop for ourselves, and I'm saying it's not how we should shop for others, either. (And before a "yes but shouldn't we be maximizing in these ways, given scarcity and efficiency and so on and so forth," please consider how eating junk food prepares you for your day and its many challenges.)

Speaking for other organizations is tricky, but based on my own experience, I think that any place you call will say something like the following (lifted from the Table Community Food Centre):

"[We focus] on providing the healthiest and most nutritious food choices available to our participants. When selecting food to donate please take a moment to consider low sodium products, lower fat options, canned fish with high omega 3s, low sugar cereal, whole grains and whole food choices. Instant or convenience foods, though quick to prepare, generally are heavily processed and have less nutrient value."

And,

"Cash is easy to donate, and lighter to carry and transport than food donations. Plus, cash donations allow us to purchase what we need when we need it. Everyone loves fresh food. Although non-perishable food donations are always welcome, cash donations allow us to provide fresh food with less waste, and to take advantage of great deals when we find them."

However, calling your neighbourhood organization does more than help to refine your shopping list. They might have some startling insight that might help you make a connection. Did you know that we share diapers and formula? One-third of the people we help are children. Did you know that toilet paper is one of the biggest non-food requests that we receive from people?

And yes, by speaking with you we get better food when you call, or maybe a new grocery cart, diapers or whatever else we need most. But we also develop a relationship with someone new, and we are more resilient and better able to effect change because of those relationships. For example, when the Region threatened major funding cuts, community members filled up Council chambers, and then, no cuts! We need more of those relationships to build a community where everyone has a real right to food.

I've been making a couple points all along: donate what you might be happy to receive; and, in general, reconsider what it means to support organizations in your community, perhaps by reaching out to organizations in your community. Get to know them, learn about what they're doing, and why. And on this final note, consider street nurse Cathy Crowe's advice.

In her article "Socks are not enough: Social justice lies upstream from charity" she outlines an "equation," which is "one-third plus one-third plus one-third." Cathy calls it "a formula for social justice not charity":

"It's a framework that can help you think about your personal response to any social justice issue. You can use this equation if you work on the local, national or global level on homelessness, hunger, climate change, violence against women -- you name it."

As she puts it, "the formula ingredients could be your time, your energy, your passion, your creativity, your letter writing or some other skill, your donations including your money."

So, "one-third of those ingredients to the downstream solutions that are the services and programs that directly help homeless people, one-third to the upstream solutions that include affordable housing, and last but not least allocate one-third to the advocacy efforts for immediate and long-term solutions."

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