Jesus Christ, food banks, and moral hazard

Edward Keenan is right about how food banks duplicate what grocery stores already do.

In fact lots of product goes to food banks directly from the manufacture/distribution/retail system because of over-production, stale-dating, damaged packaging, mislabelling, etc. Bulk food goes to food banks that would otherwise go to landfill, saving industry tippage fees.

There is so much waste in the system, from field to food bank (or compost), and so much more waste in the collection and redistribution of food by the food banks themselves, it should be possible to discount food in grocery stores so that the poor can afford it.

Let the government partner with industry to reduce this waste and convert it into fresh food for people who need it.  By eliminating the waste and cost of operating the food bank system, in addition to reduction in the grotesque waste of food by industry and consumers, it should be possible to do this without vast expense to either government or industry.

Issue pre-charged debit cards through existing channels of social assistance so people can purchase, at a discount rate, directly from the retail shelf. Let them buy more food for less money, and let them and their children walk out the front door of the store instead of making them line up at a food bank for product that was shipped out the back door and written off by the grocery chain.

If the true objective is to feed people without shaming them, there is enough waste value in the system to be captured and redeployed for this purpose. It’s a matter of will and system design.

That we make ourselves feel better with food banks is real the shame of it, because we’re also wasting all the generosity and good will of the many people needed to maintain what Keenan correctly describes as an absurdity.  Their money and effort could be deployed to much better effect.

The problems run deeper than Keenan suggests, however.   I’ve read through the comments on his article today, and it’s not all generosity and good will.

I’m alarmed by how many decent people fear the danger of helping to feed the hungry.  All the old cliché’s are there about personal responsibility for bad choices, like unwanted pregnancy or dropping out of school, or wasting money on cigarettes and alcohol.  There are also suspicions about widespread abuse by those who can’t manage their money, and by the scammers who manage all too well.  Someone actually chimed in, “give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day….”

Three days before Christmas, it might be good to remember Christ’s feeding of the multitude with a few loaves and fishes.  In gospel, it is presented as a divine act, not an act of moral hazard.

Perhaps the absurdity of the food bank is really a reflection of societal ill.  Half our nation is choking on food, yet there are still those how would spare none for the hungry for fear of imparting the wrong lesson.  Was Christ wrong?  Should he have handed out fishing rods and instructed the multitude to dig for worms?

I am not a pious man, nor particularly charitable, yet I wouldn’t presume to correct Jesus about charity.  Food banks are an inefficient way to share, and those inefficiencies diminish our ability to reduce hunger and poverty.

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