The Problem with Food Drives

This was originally published on December 13, 2010. I’ve been sick the last few days but should  have a new post written for Thursday, September 27.  – Lydia

From a recent poster at our apartment building about a food drive that the office staff hosts every December:

“not all families and their children are as fortunate as we are….”

Fortunate. Now there’s a word. Before I proceed any further of course it’s good to donate to charity and share with people who don’t have enough food, clothing or other necessities. This is one of the most vital pieces of our humanity. Without it we’re not fully human.

However I do have a problem with the way that altruism is presented this time of year. I’ve spent a fair amount of timetyping and retyping this paragraph in an attempt to boil down my objections into several neat sentences. The picture on your right explains part of it. Helping the less fortunate, whatever else it may be, is a one-way street:

They need.

We have.

They receive.

We give.

January rolls around again….and we forget?

There’s no longterm relationship there, no sense of the myriad of ways in which each one of us has been, is or will be an unfortunate in one way or another. There’s also no understand of how an unfortunate can be charitable to us.

It also ignores the people behind the amount of fortune carried by every one of us. As a child my family was for several years what this poster called unfortunate. That is, we lived in a trailer park for a few of them and money was so tight that it squeaked, groaned, all but completely unravelled between paycheques. On paper it would have appeared that our parents barely had the funds to support themselves much less look after their three young children.

Yet to define those years by how much we did or did not have misses the mark entirely. Even in the most difficult times in life no one can be defined solely by that with which they’re struggling. We weren’t the numbers in our bank account or the food in our fridge. We were people first. And second. And third.

Yes, I know I’m taking this pretty seriously. There’s no doubt in my mind that those who organize food drives mean nothing but the best and I’m grateful for all of their hard work and personal dedication to the well-being of strangers.

I just cannot be ethically comfortable with an economic or social system that separates us so thoroughly that entire social classes become abstractions. Charitable donations and annual food drives are a good temporary fix; building reciprocal relationships with other human beings and transitioning the way we think about others from that anonymous group of people to my good friend is how we’re actually going to begin to help people step out of tough situations (or to stop stereotyping, demeaning or dismissing people who need help) in the first place.

One More Problem

I’ve thought about it for a few weeks now and still cannot figure out how I would reword this:

not all families and their children are as fortunate as we are….

in such a way that it removed the barrier between those who are donating or offering help and those who are accepting the assistance of others. There must be a good way to communicate this shift in perception on a food drive poster. I just don’t know what that way would look like or how best to translate it into something snappy.


What do you think? Can you come up with a better way to communicate the need for donations without creating this separation between the unfortunate and the rest of us? Is it even something one should be concerned with when creating something like a poster that is not intended to be a treatise on this subject?

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0 Responses to The Problem with Food Drives

  1. Have you ever seen Jessica Jackley’s TED talk? Your post reminded me of her.

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  3. teresa

    Thanks, Brandon, for linking that video. I was touched by Lydia’s post and then to watch the video on top of that was really great. I’ve felt this way many times and I sometimes feel the frustrattion comes from not knowing how best to make a difference. Just this week I was thikning of this while grocery shopping as the ‘bell ringer’ for Salvation Army greets you at the door as you enter and leave. It’s compelling to put whatever you can in that bucket…like Jessica said in her talk “you buy yourself the right to go on about your life”. It’s so true. You tend to feel like you’ve done your part…but really..what?have you done?! So thought provoking. Thanks so much Lydia. I truly do admire you. I will be sharing your blog post…it’s worth it for people to see this, especially this time of the year when we are already thinking aobut the subject of giving.

    • Thank you for your kind words. 🙂

      I really don’t know how best to make a difference. It’s something I’ve been struggling with for a long time and no matter what I do it has never seemed to be enough. I’m toying with the idea of volunteering somewhere in 2011. I just don’t know where to start looking for a good opportunity. Hmmm….

  4. sgl

    another ted talk (‘single story’ is essentially a stereotype): Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story

    and for someone who is doing something in an inspiring way:Maggie Doyne – Do Something Awards Finalist

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