“Oh no, just make yourself at home.”
This seems to be the unwritten mandatory response to any guest’s offer for help, even though standing awkwardly and watching someone else work is the last thing that goes on at most homes.
A few months ago I was pleasantly surprised when my host replied, “Sure! I was thinking we could eat outside, so would you mind sweeping off the deck real quick?” I instantly relaxed and grabbed the broom, happy to have a job, and feeling more at home than ever.
Working and feeling needed is an essential part of being human, and organizations that acknowledge this reality meet not only the material, but also the spiritual, needs of the poor.
Urban Recipe in Atlanta, GA, is one such organization. Unlike the regular food pantry model, where clients receive a box of pre-packed food, Urban Recipe operates as a co-op: about 50 low-income families meet biweekly and contribute some low amount, such as $4, to a pot. This money is used to pay for food, which each member helps to either unload from the delivery truck, portion, sort, or distribute. After organizing the food into boxes, elected officers from the group lead a business meeting involving community announcements, a devotional time, and sometimes a guest speaker.
By encouraging the poor to take on leadership and responsibility, organizations like Urban Recipe affirm that all people bring something to the table. The premise of this way of thinking is present everywhere. In a PBS interview with Joe Wilson, who is a homeless man-turned-executive director of Hospitality House, he spoke of the difference it made “when someone was willing to make eye contact with me, was willing to actually touch me as another human being. That had more value than a dollar.”
Acknowledging Wilson’s humanity with the intimate and vulnerable act of eye contact was profoundly meaningful. So why shouldn’t we acknowledge the other parts of his humanity? The part that wants to provide for his family, to contribute to society, to form meaningful friendships?
Fortunately, food pantries seem to be moving, ever so slowly, in the direction of dignity. Many groups, including all of Feeding America’s partners, use the client choice model, where the recipients choose for themselves the food they wish to take home. With this model, less food is wasted, and clients are able to make their own decisions about what their families need.
Despite these trends, it seems Urban Recipe and Feeding America differ fundamentally in their understandings of personhood. Even the language is different.
Feeding America, the US’ largest domestic hunger-relief organization, advertises the following mission: “to feed America’s hungry through a nationwide network of member food banks and engage our country in the fight to end hunger.” (emphasis added)
Urban Recipe, on the other hand, was established “to partner with our members and supporters in creating food security, building community, and providing a platform for personal development while affirming dignity.” (emphasis added)
One sees the human as a mouth to be fed, and the other as a soul to be filled. One solves the large-scale, logistical game of resources, and the other fosters holistic growth on an individual basis.
In places where restaurants throw out pounds of food every night as families down the road go to bed with empty stomachs, moving resources around to meet material needs is a no-brainer. But it doesn’t have to be done without a brain. Simple models that affirm the whole person, like Urban Recipe’s, can have a positive effect on the self-worth of everyone involved.
We can do much more than look into the eyes of a homeless man. We can see the potential that lies behind them.