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.



19 comments on “Charity

  1. gatheringplaceseasonfour says:

    thank you. We have been struck by / in the book Toxic Charity


  2. Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

    It sounds to me like you’re advocating for people to (re)learn how to feed themselves à la “Give a man… teach a man…”? Bravo!!
    But you’ve also touched on something that I’ve been wondering about since I was a kid… How is it that the incredibly diverse cultures around the world were able to survive (even thrive) before “civilisation” came along to “help” them learn the “proper” way of doing things? ‘Cause OBVIOUSLY they couldn’t have known anything before that, right?? (LORD, how I hate that pompous air of superiority):
    Yknow, my Gran’ma used to say that she wanted to learn something new every day and, if she ever thought she “knew it all”, that she might as well dig a hole and pull the grass over her head; )

    Liked by 2 people

    • gatheringplaceseasonfour says:

      some states (CO) get the grass before they dig the hole.


    • Bill says:

      As I said, I don’t have the answers. Very often the folks needing help don’t need to be taught how to fish. They already know how to fish. They just need a hand. We’ve been impressed with Kiva and Heifer International. Kiva gives microloans to help people start small businesses and Heifer gives livestock to help people start small farming operations.


      • One of the best Christmas gifts I’ve ever received was a gift card to give a Kiva loan. I love participating in it. As soon as I I’ve received enough repayments to loan out to a new person – I jump on it. It has given me great pleasure over the past two years to help people help themselves.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, I do agree with you. Our over zealous desire to help those in need and keep them in need might help our economy but doesn’t do much for those that become co-dependent on the hand outs. I wasn’t aware that we exported it to other countries as well as sustaining it in our own. It’s sad to see what our country is becoming when just five or six generations ago, we were hard working survivalists. My great grandfather came to Nebraska in the 1800s and helped his Dad bust the sod and live the pioneer life. He was part of the original off the grid living movement. He died when I was about 12 so I remember him and wish I had really talked with him a lot more about what life was like back then. One of the reasons that I blog is so my great grand children will be able to read about what old grand pop did way back when he was alive. Some one down the genetic tree might find it interesting to read about early 21st century living. I try to do my best at local helping. Most times it’s not monetary but fix and repair things. A man with a chainsaw and a truck is in great demand so it seems.

    Have a great charity day after Thanksgiving.


    • Bill says:

      It’s a tough thing to figure out. My grandfather had to quit school after the 3rd grade to take over running the family farm when his father went blind. He saved the farm during the Depression and showed the kind of survivalist spunk that was characteristic of Americans, but I don’t want to go back to a time when children have to do that. The children who were working in the cotton mill in town had it even worse I suppose. And I’ve spent time in Haiti where people literally and regularly die for want of a few dollars to buy medicine, food or health care. Our compassion is a good thing but it seems to me that we have to find a way to help the needy without pushing them into permanent dependency. In the case of food aid it seems that dependency is the goal.


  4. Joanna says:

    America might be the only one giving food away for free, but they are not the only country to give tied aid i.e. you can have a new well/dam/other technical piece of wizardry that you will not be able to service yourself, as long as the money we give you is then used to buy the equipment from us and the consultations that are needed. You can of course use local labour, maybe to build it under guidance from our nationals.

    Does the food bank in your area give lessons on cooking and raising vegetables? I know some places do and it helps people live better on a budget and not just reach for the convenience stuff. Maybe there is scope for a project that a group in Latvia started, where they gave seeds and support to help young families to grow their own vegetables. The people supported had to show that they were willing to work on it, if they just expected it to be done for them, they were turned down.


    • Bill says:

      Yes you’re right. I’ve read how foreign aid is regularly used as a way to procure work (lucrative work) for domestic corporations.

      Thanks to a grant Cherie procured for them a couple of years ago, the food bank has a demonstration kitchen as well as a supply of cookbooks with simple recipes for people living on a tight food budget. The fact that our culture is losing the ability to cook is a whole ‘nuther problem.

      Community gardens are a great idea. Certainly people who are unemployed and who have a yard ought to be growing at least some of their own food. We have friends in town who are doing a great job with a community garden there, where people in the community can grow food. That’s the kind of work I’d like to see more of, rather than just handing out the grocery store rejects.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The old teaching a person to fish as opposed to providing a fish dinner. I’ve never felt giving something for nothing works in the long run. In addition to creating dependence, it destroys self-pride. I also like community gardens. For next to nothing people can supplement their food. –Curt


    • Bill says:

      Yes I agree. Work like you did with the Peace Corps can empower people and build a sense of pride and self-respect. Making unsustainable handouts normative (even in the absence of any emergency situation) degrades human dignity.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. avwalters says:

    The two most dangerous, most tragic words, when used together, “meant well.”


  7. EllaDee says:

    In Australia people who are unable to work get some sort of financial support… enough for a basic needs for an interim period… to extend it as a lifestyle – and some do- takes a certain amount of ingenuity, which can be both good and bad. The good is the people with resourcefulness, gardens etc and who participate in work schemes and community work. The bad spend the money on crap and rely on extra assistance. Because of this there’s talk of replacing some or all of the benefits across the board but I think those who are amongst the ‘good’ should be exempt if it ever comes off.


    • Bill says:

      It’s a difficult problem to solve. There will always probably be freeloaders gaming the system. I worry more about creation of permanent dependency–that is giving people the belief that it is perfectly normal and appropriate to rely on charity. And I say that as someone who is a big advocate of charitable giving.


  8. Marianna says:

    I struggle so much with this! I, too, volunteer at a local food pantry. Most of our clients work low paying service industry jobs. I leave there every week asking myself if I’m really making a difference. We see many of the same people week after week. Wouldn’t they be better served by help to improve their situation? I’m really beginning to think advocating for living wage laws would be more beneficial. Our pantry operates almost exclusively on community donations, and we have a very generous community (one elementary school of 17 alone donated over 1700 pounds of food for Thanksgiving). But even the mere mention of affordable housing gets the same people who donate so generously foaming at the mouth. How can we so easily disconnect the high need at the pantry from the high housing costs in our community? How can we disconnect the $8.00 an hour store clerk from the high need? But start talking about living wage laws and again the same people who donate so generously go crazy, convinced that our economy will go to hell in the proverbial basket. I personally would much rather live in a community where everyone was working hard and supporting themselves without needing, dare I say, expecting handouts.


    • Bill says:

      Oscar Romero said, “When I fed the poor they called me a saint. When I asked why they were poor they called me a communist.”

      Here it’s difficult to find full-time employment. Many people have to take jobs that can’t support a household (and often with no benefits) and have to rely on food stamps, the food bank, etc. to make ends meet. Folks like that need and deserve a helping hand. But others don’t bother working at all, don’t even plant a garden, and have essentially resigned themselves to living permanently off charity. We need to try to find a way to break that pattern. Hard-working employed people shouldn’t have to depend on charity to make ends meet, and at the same time we ought not incentivize people to remain on charity rather than work themselves free of it. I don’t have an answer but it seems to me to be a very serious problem.


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