On charitable giving (and receiving)
Charity is very much top-of-mind this week. My husband is in the Army Reserves, and either we are the only large-ish family in his unit and thus deemed needful of charity based solely on the number of mouths to feed, or perhaps he has slightly exaggerated our financial plight (I'm freelancing as our main source of income right now, and while the work is plentiful, my time is not so much). Either way we have received two gift baskets in the past week, both stocked with hams, a pound of margarine, and various canned goods and other nonperishables. I am grateful. And yet, given my now year-long commitment to feed my family organic, fairly traded, as-local-as-possible food, it's been a challenge deciding how to face a six-year-old who I found hoarding two boxes of cake mix and a package of Sara Lee dinner rolls in his bedroom. Among other things. One day I'll let the boys gorge themselves on Trix, Campbell's chicken noodle soup, and chocolate icing straight out of the carton, the next day I hide it all and force-feed them sourdough whole wheat baked goods and raw milk. As a culture, we believe that one should not look a gift horse in the mouth and that those receiving charitable assistance should be pleased to eat whatever GMO-ridden, conventional, processed, sugar-packed, wrapped-up-in-excess-packaging goods the givers choose.
I am torn. I wish to be grateful and am thrilled that such largess exists. I know that those who assembled the gift packages did so out of a genuine and generous wish to make our lives better. (And the PGE gift card that was included in one of them will, indeed!, make our lives better. If anyone should be struggling over what to get for a needy family -- go with the PGE gift card!) And at the same time I wish I could somehow send a message to all those who shop for holiday gift baskets and ask if they might consider getting big bags of Bob's Red Mill organic whole wheat flour, and a dozen eggs from Kookoolan Farms, and perhaps a nice local ham from Sweet Briar Farms or the Pacific Village cooperative.
I have three sisters who are more deserving of charity than me (one's a missionary in Panama and lives on a few hundred dollars a month, at the extreme end of needfulness), and even though they haven't yet subscribed to my whole-foods, sugar-free lifestyle, I feel terrible offering them the big bag of white sugar I was given. They'll use it, but I'd rather give them a quart of raw honey, and it feels wrong to give someone else products on my personal list of banned foodstuffs.
And the other thing is this: poverty is in the eye of the beholder. Despite my current juggle of utility bills and mortgage, I feel rich. In my budget, nourishing food comes first, and I have a pantry stocked with all sorts of amazing preserves, I have chickens that lay me nutrient-rich eggs, I get four gallons of rich creamy raw milk every week, I have surely earned platinum frequent-shopper status at the farmer's market, I have vowed to myself that, no matter what, I will never run out of local honey or organic flour. I do not consider my family in need of food aid. Though I might qualify for food stamps on my current income (hopefully temporarily depressed), I feel wrong applying for them, as I do not ever go hungry, and what I do eat seems thrilled with wealth. Besides: I have made choices about how much I am earning, and it does not feel right to have society be burdened with them (though I'd be singing a different tune if this post were to discuss health care. It's not).
I'd be interested to see how you all feel about these subjects. Have you given or received food baskets for the holidays, and have you thought at all about how we express our culture through them? Is there a way to challenge prevailing assumptions about what it is needy families need, without being ungrateful or dispiriting? Do you feel rich on an income others might deem impoverished? Or do you think you are poor despite your upper-middle-class income (I've felt that way at times)? Maybe I'm just spending too much time worrying about this when I should be writing something to pay for my health insurance premiums? What's your take?
(And one final word about charity: you have a few more days to contribute to the Willamette Week Give! Guide: your gifts can help your favorite non profit earn bonuses and such, and you can express yourself through cash. The Portland Fruit Tree Project, Growing Gardens, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, the Community Cycling Center and Free Geek are some of my favorites due to their commitment to, variously, local food, organic agriculture, reducing waste and fuel reliance, and using the abundance we might take for granted.)