One of the ways the federal government soaks up the grain surplus our industrial agricultural system generates nearly every year is to buy it and then ship it to food-insecure places in the world as “food aid.” Federal law requires that at least half of American food aid be purchased in the U.S. and then shipped on U.S. flagged vessels. Consequently it takes months for the food to reach the people who need it and over half of the food aid budget ends up in the pockets of middlemen. It’s a system designed to benefit special interests in the U.S., rather than starving people. If feeding the hungry were the objective, it would make better economic sense to buy the food as locally as possible, reducing transportation delay and expense. To the best of my knowledge the U.S. is the only country that gives its food aid in-kind.

But the worst fault of this system isn’t that it is inefficient. Just as subsidized U.S. grain depresses local prices, driving farmers out of business and destroying indigenous agriculture, “free” U.S. food aid is ruinous to the local farmers trying to stay alive. They just can’t compete with free. The end result is that people who were formerly food self-sufficient are transformed into wards of American agribusiness, utterly dependent upon it for food–the most basic of human necessities.

Charity that helps people through times of crisis is a good and noble thing. Charity that creates permanent states of dependency is not. That kind of charity does more harm than good.

Humans seem hard-wired to want to share and help each other out in times of need. Our compassion for the needy is one of things that makes us fully human. It’s a good thing and I applaud it. Anyone who’s been reading this blog a long time knows that charitable giving is an important part of our ethic.

But the truth of the matter is that I wish I could go back in time and redirect some of our past giving. I’ve come to realize that, although always well-intentioned, we were sometimes doing as much to create a future problem as we were to solve an immediate problem. We’ve come to realize that when assessing the merits of particular charitable giving, it is crucial to consider sustainability.

But how to help the needy without fostering dependency is a tricky matter. For example, Cherie volunteers at our local food bank and every year the number of families getting their food there increases. We live in an economically-depressed community and there are many people here who aren’t able to make ends meet without help. Some of the people who get food at the food bank were once volunteers there. Some show up wearing their fast food uniforms. They’re people who are trying, but coming up short. The idea that people receiving charity are lazy is a commonly-believed lie. But there are also people who are now multi-generational dependents upon the food pantry. They’re not coming because they’re going through hard times and unable to make ends meet. They can’t afford to buy food, but that economic situation is their norm and there doesn’t seem to be any expectation that it will change.

But there’s the rub. Everyone who gets the food is too poor to afford to buy it. But for some their need is temporary–and they’re being helped through a hard time in life. For others their need is seemingly permanent–they are resigned to (or even content with) a life of dependency, and reliance upon charity to meet their needs only encourages and perpetuates that ultimately unsustainable state. But there doesn’t seem to be any reasonable way to distinguish the two sets of people, and even if there were, fortunately our cultural values prevent us from allowing families to go hungry unnecessarily. We’re just not cold-hearted enough to allow suffering to make a point, especially when it is children who bear the brunt of the suffering.

I certainly don’t have the answers, but I think it’s time our culture at least acknowledge that the questions exist. If a crisis creates a need for food aid somewhere in the world, we ought to step up and help–but we don’t have to destroy local agriculture to do it. Our motive must not be clouded by ulterior desires to increase American agribusiness market-share. And likewise, when choosing how to direct charitable giving at home, we simply must factor in sustainability–looking for solutions that not only address the need but make it less likely to occur in the future, rather than creating a state of permanent dependency.