Monday, December 8, 2008

Loaves and Fishes

Yesterday, my wife and I helped to serve lunch to about 180 homeless individuals in Columbia Heights, a neighborhood in DC, through a program called Loaves and Fishes. While the program is trying to help--and it should be celebrated for that as food aid operations are struggling along with the rest of the economy--it doesn't seem to be helping effectively. Let me describe what I saw.

I arrived five minutes late to a swarm of activity and several volunteers leaving as there were not enough jobs for volunteers. That could be seen as a good sign but once I left the kitchen and went in to the dining room (the church basement) I witnessed a bit of class apartheid. All the volunteers either in the kitchen or at the side of the room waiting to serve lunch to all of the homeless people. That seemed strange for wouldn't it be useful, both for volunteers and the aid recipients to interact with each other? Why not assign some volunteers to simply sit at a table and chat with the 'other' (especially if there are too many to help prepare food)? These volunteers could get to know the diners' stories, moving them from objects of pity to subjects--individuals who could be actually empathized with. Instead, as a server of food--styrofoam plates of baked chicken, greens, potatoes, and two little processed cookies wedged between the potatoes and chicken and absorbing chicken grease--I handed the diners food after being specifically told not to serve to an empty seat even if someone tells me there's someone sitting there as they might be trying to sneakily get a second helping.

This brings me to a big issue. That of trust. There was a major lack of it present. Yes, of course, some would try to get an extra meal, but this lack of trust really creates the wrong environment. Including creating a lack of respect. Here's an example, while serving one of the diners, he asked me for a leg and not a breast. No problem I told him, and gave someone else the breast. For the next few minutes as I looked in vain for a leg (we were on seconds already so they had run low), a fellow volunteer chastised me saying "they get what they're served." I felt belittled and angry--not for myself but to see how little these individuals were valued. They get what they get and that's it--and be careful or they'll try to get even more. Those dirty little people.

Of course, these were all subtle, but here's a clearer example, or a question rather. Why do you need more than a few volunteers anyway? What is the logic of getting volunteers to cook and serve the food, do the dishes and the rest, while the homeless diners just sit and eat, and before dinner, talk, play cards or listen to their iPod (yes, really)? I joined not to play waiter, but to help in a way that empowers these individuals. Of course, that's not how charity works today. Volunteers come to feel better about themselves and the homeless are simply the chorus, support actors--in some sort of complex tragic play. Sophocles would be proud.

So how to improve this? Here's one small suggestion--not to address the whole system but at least food aid. What about reducing these dinners by 90 percent, feeding 18 instead of 180. And instead of letting them sit alone, for those that can work, get them helping. For those that are unable to work--say physically or mentally handicapped--let them chat in a small group, one that includes a volunteer. With a savvy volunteer, perhaps she could build trust and help connect one with another, getting an elderly woman teaching an illiterate immigrant how to read, for example. In a setting of 180 individuals, the best that can be hoped for is order, not advancement, so I certainly don't fault Loaves and Fishes for its effort, however I am frustrated with how little the operation lives up to its name.

For those of you not familiar, Loaves and Fishes refers to when Jesus and the apostles fed an impossible number of people with very little food. They succeeded because everyone shared the food they had (not because of a heavenly miracle, but by the human miracle of trust). If a setting where sharing--of labor, of time, of trust--could be created, where people could learn new skills, make new connections, and help others, that in the long-run would be much more useful, even if just a tenth of the people were served.

A practical question: who would be invited? Why not have an application process? Offer daily lunches (not just weekly) to the 20 that are willing to help cook or clean or prepare or or tend the urban garden (which could be a good source of healthy food) or teach English to someone else. A competitive process could glean the most rehabilitative individuals and immediately give them a bit of pride and investment into this experiment. And then by creating a routine and empowering them with a job well done, these might go much further than the current emergency relief style operations in helping to find them a stable place in society and thus solving the root problem instead of continuing to just treat the symptoms, like most food aid operations seem to do.

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