The holiday season is upon us and with it comes a focus on food, gifts, and in many cases, a focus on giving food to non-profit organizations. I really love that the spirit of Christmas inspires people to look out for others, “adopt” families, drop money in red buckets, organize donation drives, and look for alternative gifts—I love to find charities that pertain to someone’s interests and give money in their honor. When I was growing up, my grandparents would donate to Heifer International in honor of my brothers and cousins and me, picking animals that we liked. They always picked rabbits for me. My school or church would inevitably have a food drive and we would usually pick some cans of soup at random to drop into the bin.
Years later, after I finished college, I moved to Washington, DC to spend a year as a long-term volunteer at a non-profit that works to end the cycle of homelessness. On Fridays, I worked in the food bank, shelving donations, checking expiration dates, and keeping everything in order. Sometimes, throughout the year, we got big boxes that had been personalized, declaring that the food collected in them was in honor of someone’s bar or bat mitzvah, or graduation, or birthday, or confirmation. That was pretty cool—I wish I’d thought of that!
But the vast majority of donations, about three-quarters of them, in fact, came in the months of November and December. We would get far more cans of cranberry sauce than we could ever give away. We would get SO MANY boxes of instant potatoes and croutons for stuffing and cans of pumpkin puree, like people imagined our organization feeding thousands of people Thanksgiving dinner (we did not, although every year, we do serve almost half a million meals in our dining hall and residential programs). One year after Passover, a grocery store donated an entire pallet of matzo crackers that hadn’t sold.
When clients came in and wished that there was more canned fruit or tuna or cereal or hearty soup, sometimes my mind would go to the shelves of cranberry sauce and matzo crackers that no one wanted.
I would stand on a ladder, pushing cans of tomato soup back further on the shelf and stacking them higher like an Andy Warhol painting to make room for more. My boss would read me the nutrition labels. “35% DV salt in one serving,” he might announce, horrified. I learned that Campbell’s tomato soup comes in orange and yellow made from heirloom tomatoes, too, and these cans almost gave variety to the dozen-deep, four-high, fifteen-wide shelf of tomato soup. One can, two can, red can, yellow can.
A formerly homeless woman who came to speak at my church said that she gained 30 pounds at shelters because of the cheap, starchy meals she was fed. Spaghetti is easy to make for a crowd and it can be made pretty darn cheaply. Food banks are often unable to store fresh produce, so people who rely on food banks as a staple of their diets might struggle to eat as many fruits and vegetables as they should.
I would look at the shelves and think to myself, how could I make a meal out of these things, if I didn’t own many kitchen supplies or staple ingredients or cookbooks? To this day, I have never used dried beans except as weights to keep a pie shell from puffing up while baking. I’m sure I could do things with soups or pastas if I had the time, but many people who frequent food banks work long hours and don’t have the energy to do that at the end of the day. I would have to be really creative to feed myself a nutritious meal from a food bank, and that isn’t even considering the fact that I have food allergies.
I could really get on a soapbox about how important it is to donate food in the summer, when kids aren’t able to get free or reduced lunches from their schools, or why dry pasta is a bad idea, or how people shouldn’t give their expired cans to food banks (you might think that this would be an obvious thing to avoid, but I assure you that it happens frequently).
I don’t mean to disparage the donations that are made, because I really do think it’s a wonderful thing that people have come to associate the holidays with a time to give to others, and I genuinely LOVE that this church has a tradition of sharing communion with the wider community by collecting food for Aid in Milan on the first Sundays of the month when we eat bread together in the sanctuary. It’s a beautiful image of the feast of the table of God.
But just in case you didn’t know (and I certainly never knew until my year at the non-profit)…food banks have wish lists! Food banks near my home town serve a lot of Latinx people, and so those food banks ask for masa and beans. Some food banks focus on women and children and need baby formula and kid-friendly foods. Some food banks have the capacity to store fresh produce, but might need volunteers to pick it up on short notice. Some food banks have programs that put together meal kits to put in kids’ backpacks for the weekend, so they might have particular needs. A food bank that primarily serves street homeless clients has no need for microwaveable popcorn, but clients at another food bank might really enjoy eating fresh popcorn.
I am deeply grateful to God (and the pastor nominating committee!) for letting me serve a congregation that is so generous with their time and talents and so interested in sharing the joy of the season with our whole community. May our bellies and our hearts be full as we prepare the way for the coming of the Lord!
shalom and agape,
Rev Leia Rose Battaglia