Sarah Gilbert is a freelance financial writer; she keeps chickens; and she’s a beginning urban farmer. She lives with her three small boys and husband in Portland, Oregon, and keeps her own blog, Cafe Mama.

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What do we “deserve”?

January 13, 2009

Great charity was given and received this past Christmas, some of it to my family. Growing up in a household in which the bills were always a stretch and frugality was, not fashionable, but the only reality we ever knew, I have seen the boxes dozens of times.

The good ones have a ham and a turkey; a can of olives, the kind you can put on your fingertips; and brand-name canned vegetables and cranberry sauce. They have two of everything: two boxes of stuffing, two packages of cake mix, two cans of green beans for casserole. A hefty bag of white sugar, maybe some luscious spongy dinner rolls, canned pie filling, fruit cocktail. Oranges or, for the truly extravagant givers, a box of clementines.

If you read me elsewhere, you’ll know that my kitchen was unexpectedly awash this past holiday season in cardboard boxes filled with food gifts produced from a great spirit of generosity and the season’s most sincere tidings. My lack of a job with benefits, it seems, shifted us into a new category of necessity in the eyes of some military organizations. Or it could be that my husband, an Army Reservist, is playing the fiddle of financial woes a little louder than is strictly required. Or maybe it’s just that the two of us have very different spectacles through which we view our family’s food budget.

Whatever the answer, I felt that I couldn’t say no. Instead, I said thank you, and gave some honey shortbread cookies to the sergeant major who delivered some of the boxes. And then stood in my kitchen, surveying the generosity of people who don’t know me at all, thrilling with this outpouring of helpfulness and biting my lip.

Stuffing, not from a box.

Our three boys literally tore into a box of Trix cereal, an item of contraband that hasn’t seen the inside of my kitchen in years. Cold cereal is strictly banned from my shopping list, although the boys eat several helpings a day of generic corn flakes whenever we visit my parents’ house. It’s not just that cold cereal isn’t local food. It’s so many other things — the sugar, to begin with, and the many derivatives of corn.

Lately, I’ve felt driven to remove GMOs from my food. A BBC piece on the plight of the honey bee (which began as soon as GMO sunflowers became widely grown in Europe; apparently, something in the genetic tinkering messed with the bees’ navigational system, and nothing has been the same since) only solidified a sense of great discomfort that so much of our culture’s calories come from foodstuffs that have been altered at their very molecular core.

Everything about breakfast cereal is GMO, processed, and grown in a monoculture, and completely bereft of nutritional value. And if that weren’t enough, Sally Fallon, in her book Nourishing Traditions, writes that the high heat and pressure used to make flakes and pops and nuggets and such renders them toxic: “Studies show that these extruded whole-grain preparations can have even more adverse effects on the blood sugar than refined sugar and white flour!” Certainly, the nutrients are destroyed in the processing.

We don’t do cereal. And yet, here I am in my kitchen, surrounded by not just cereal but by any number of sincerely given foods that would not survive a pantry purge. I was rent, pulled in several directions, not wishing to pick up the gift horse’s hooves but still wondering just how lame he was. And now I had to face the considerable problem of what to do with this largesse.

After the boys ripped open a few packages, spending a day dizzily existing on Sara Lee dinner rolls, Trix cereal, and a can of peaches in heavy syrup, I took stock. I allowed the cutting up of one ham, the boiling of a few conventional potatoes, the sharing of two boxes of Stovetop stuffing, although I took a few bites of the stuffing and promptly made my own version with some stale bread, celeriac, and 50-cents-a-pound local organic onions.

I called my sisters, two of whom are teachers and don’t know the meaning of “disposable income,” and offered to let them pick through and take what they wanted. They did so with gratitude, though my heart was sick. If I won’t let my own children eat this way, how could I let my little niece and my baby sister take the preservative- and chemical-packed fall?

I wrote about my inner struggle on urbanMamas, and while I found a few kindred spirits, I was also criticized for being classist. The word “snob” came up, and a few people argued for quantity over quality.

One commenter said about her decision when buying for charity: “Well, I could spend $50 and come away with one bag of groceries for this family, or spend the same and come away with three bags of groceries. Wrong or right, I assumed that an ‘in need’ family would rather have more food options to fill their pantry than certain brands.”

I must find a better answer. In my heart, I know that what I want is a world in which less is more, quality is better than quantity, and it is the poor and the destitute who are considered the primary market for organic potatoes. I want cranberry sauce made with honey and a few loaves of stale bread with which to make the original peasant food. For isn’t that what stuffing really is: a way to make a bird stretch for many days of meals? In the end, you’re serving a meal of dry bread cubes baked with the barest hint of bone broth, onions, celery root, a few nuts, and dried berries, so it will fill the stomach.

Stuffing is not a food to be sold in a box, with dessicated and preserved and chemically flavored stale bread. How can it be that this is what we give to people in our time of warmest, most sincere generosity? How is it that we have given the sparsest, most desperate food of peasants a brand, several layers of packaging, and made it a middle-class side dish, something special to give to the poor in their hour of holiday need?

And I ask, who is it who needs nourishment more than the poor, who likely live without health insurance and who perhaps are working physically harder, going with less heat, and have fewer resources? Don’t the children of people in financial difficulties need to fill their stomachs with something other than sugar, trans-fatty acids, and artificial flavorings?

And how can I ask that question without crucifying those who gave me charity? I do not wish to do that, but my heart is doing flips of justification and guilt and food passion, and cannot find up from down.

I hear the argument for “more is more,” but I yearn for more nuance. Though I truly do not have any money this month, I spent some of the last $30 in my bank account one day on 15 pounds of locally ground, organic, whole-wheat flour, and I make my siblings a batch of shortbread. I commit to myself to working twice as hard next month so that I can buy my baby sister a quart of honey to augment the 10 pounds of sugar I gave her, and my little niece a big bag of organic pears.

I promise myself that the next time I pass the food bin at People's Co-op, I will put a bag of organic, thick-cut, Northwest-grown oats into it, a fat knob of celeriac, a jar of maple syrup. And I know that whoever gets it will be nourished in body as well as in spirit.

There are 13 comments on this item
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1. by jess on Jan 13, 2009 at 7:38 PM PST

thank you for this, an absolutely heart-wrenching yet wonderful read.

2. by Gina on Jan 14, 2009 at 10:19 AM PST

You’ve beautifully & eloquently expressed the inner turmoil many of us are going through. Thank you for sharing.

3. by becka on Jan 14, 2009 at 11:43 AM PST

This all really needed to be said. I’m not sure what gives anyone the right to say that because people are poor, they don’t deserve good quality food. I’ve found that quality over quantity is a value that comes up again and again in many aspects of my life--as a designer I am constantly asked to produce work quickly, even if it means it will be sub-par--and I wish I saw it reflected in the world around me more. Thanks for putting it so beautifully.

4. by whimsy2 on Jan 14, 2009 at 4:13 PM PST

Very well said, Sarah. Food for thought!

5. by Gillian on Jan 15, 2009 at 4:01 PM PST

I live in Western Massachusetts and we have a lovely project called the Food Bank Farm. It is a CSA that gives half of the food grown to the shareholders and the other half (around 200,000 pounds a year) to the area food banks. It is an organic farm as well so the food is fresh, local and organic. The system works wonderfully because the farmer’s make a living and both the shareholders and the needy are provided with nutritious produce of the highest quality. You can check them out at They are so popular that there is a waiting list for CSA shares. It’s a beautiful model of how we can feed our community no matter their income.

6. by terriodea on Jan 16, 2009 at 7:36 AM PST

Sarah, I read your post over there at urbanmamas and I also read the comments too. I think the topic of giving subpar food to needy families, food that you wouldn’t eat yourself, is an interesting one and deserves to be looked at more in depth. I think there are two issues here. One is that most people eat Stove Top and Trix so their donation is one that they themselves would enjoy and appreciate. The other issue is that you were given charity bought with other people’s hard-earned money and you gave a critique of their charity-charity you said you didn’t even need. I know you didn’t want to come across as self-righteous or snobby like some of the commenters said and you wanted to discuss the broader scope of quality donations but perhaps your insights would have been better received if you kept your own charity out of the equation.

7. by Jennifer on Jan 19, 2009 at 4:31 PM PST

I have been thinking about this topic since your post on urbanmamas and can think of 2 issues. One, I don’t think the poor deserve less healthy food than the middle or upper classes. Who defines healthy food, though? Should we impose our views of healthy food on others, with or without the charity component? Some people believe in the importance of animal protein, while others are vegetarian or even vegan. Which leads to the second issue I have been pondering - to what extent the giver of charity should try to know the recipient. I.e., should the giver get to know the recipient in order to tailor the charity? I can imagine that some givers and receivers might be uncomfortable with such knowledge while others would find that it added an important dimension. Thanks for giving me food for thought.

8. by anonymous on Mar 17, 2009 at 8:28 AM PDT

Lady ... Yes, I understand organic, low-impact, sustainable, etc., blah blah blah.

The fact is, if you’re in need of food bad enough that other people are giving it to you for free, you have no business being picky about what’s in the box.

If you’re so stuck on the organic, etc. thing that it bothers you ... then try going hungry for a while.

9. by redweather on Jun 8, 2009 at 1:12 PM PDT

Ms. Gilbert, thank you very much for a profound post. It sounds like you haven’t answered your own questions yet, but I hope to see you writing more on this topic soon.

10. by Syd on Jun 10, 2009 at 1:42 PM PDT

If you are so in need of food that other people need to give it to you (I don’t think you were) then you have no business being picky?

Well then, we might as well all just eat dirt then. It is highly nutritious and free. Of course then we’d get into rich topsoil vs depleted factory-farmed mud-slinging arguments then.

What I’ve discovered is those topics needing to be talked about the most bring in those comments with the most outrage. Things like Trix get donated because we don’t talk about it partly in fear of reaming by those who find it unmentionable. We let our subconscious, ruled by the carefully cultivated plantings of Madison Avenue and Wall Street tell us that we are treating someone without food. We imagine the television-like glee when they see name-brand cold cereal in the food stocking.

Astroturf organizations hired by the very companies who make the most profit from the donation boxes are even going around seeding the idea that those who are poor aren’t comfortable with the haute-cuisine and off-brands not seen in corporate stores, so we are being very insensitive to give them organic and fair-trade at their moments of need which is hard enough for them (which is it -- they should be grateful for what we’ll give them or coddled?).

The thing is, speaking more to those who benefit from our choices than the end user, food banks are something born out of the ashes of the Savings & Loan debacles and union busting of the Reagan Administration. If they could set up the illusion of the people taking care of our own then they could cut safety net programs putting those monies towards CEO and shareholder losses from the financial rapings of government bail-outs for the richest (and just how do they get that way?).

As much as food banks are needed and relieve hunger they are in some ways like feeding feral cats in that it only throws coins at the problem, sometimes even multiplying the population rather than solving it. Food banks hardly scratch the surface of “Food Insecurity” in the Americas and all over the world.

Ironically, those who are often the most hungry are those who work with the food. Pickers in Immokalee, Florida; children kept as slaves in Africa for cacao (chocolate) plantations; restaurant employees; meat workers; food processors of all kinds. Those who deliver us our own riches. They are not paid living wages, if they are paid at all, and work in some of the most atrocious conditions because we feel we are entitled to $1.99 gallons of milk and 99¢ burgers (with the works). It’s in the constitution, isn’t it?

The reality is a rising tide floats all boats and their need would be less if we paid just a tiny bit more.

Hunger is not lack of quality food but planned economics and not being able to afford it.

But we all eat. It is the elephant in the room. We need it but fear talking about it as if it will go away for us too if we do. Yet, food is certainly used to manipulate from the missionaries in other countries who fed those who came to their sermons (after of course) to the PTA which offers free food to get the parents to come to Back-To-School night (amazingly, even Grandma comes then).

Keeping people hungry makes them more malleable. Hungry people take low-paying jobs and put up with ridiculous hours. Sam Walton pegged his success on the insecurity of the farmers in Arkansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma.

Cheap food is organized, and often government backed, snake oil and shyster sales. But it’s often high-calorie yet nutrient bereft and all at the cost of our environments, our economic securities (a Wal-Mart worker cannot afford a GM car) and our tax-dollars both pre-production and after in needed welfare.

And, there is something basic in the personal mind-game we play of giving 3 bags rather than just one. However, I wonder if it’s more like spending $10 trying to make it seem more like $50. We attempt to fool ourselves we are doing more than we are... then angry when called out on the reality of it in articles such as this. Nevermind that donating the cash directly would have much more impact than the amount of bags we can wring out of shelves of a mega-mart who is quite happy to have us purchase more from them. The Waltons are not in the soup kitchens.

It seems much more like snobbery to expect those with less to eat crap because they should be grateful for anything they can get while eating well yourself. But perhaps on some level those who are most cranky about this issue know that in their hearts. The protests are the only way they know to prop up the curtain weaved with selfish illusions.

What I also discovered when I went meatless and could no longer just pop in anywhere for cheap eats is that I not only ate better but I ate less (which was less expensive) because I was getting what my body needed (finally) and my near constant hunger and annoying cravings went away. For my child, her ADD symptoms went way down to the point we cut out the medications and saved even more that way. We both feel much better now. Healthy food should not be optional.

But Big Phood and Pharma do not want you to know that!

Finally, one last consideration. Anyone and everyone can eat food that is vegan (including many who have allergies especially to lactose and eggs) but to cater to omnis is to exclude many others. Further, fruits and vegetables are needed by everyone (calorie for calorie nothing is more nutritious than kale) and among the least donated so most stretched. If those who have the least are healthy they are better able to pull on their bootstraps.

There really is a lot of satisfaction in truly nurturing another rather than just filling holes we’ve dug ourselves.

Please keep talking!

11. by anonymous on Jul 10, 2009 at 9:33 AM PDT

Having some experience with providing food to the needy, I’ve learned that many of those who are most needy have no understanding of how to cook from scratch. Whole, frozen turkeys were once donated to our local shelter, yet residents complained of no food. They had no knowledge on how to cook a turkey, nor had they any inclination to work that hard. That’s why at holiday time a charity box from our local food pantries give out boxes of stuffing, boxes of mashed potatoes, canned gravy, etc. It makes me cringe, but anything else would just be wasted on people who won’t use it.

12. by vesperlight on Jul 15, 2009 at 9:30 PM PDT

It might please you to know that one of the 20x40 foot plots in our community garden has a sign in that says “St. Stephen’s FISH.” St. Stephen’s is a local church that participates in FISH, a food service program. I hope next year they will be brave enough to try a little variety in a second plot, but I consider it a good sign. The potatoes are tall and in blossom.

13. by zegg on Dec 23, 2009 at 7:59 AM PST

While I think that many people who are really in need of donated food (i.e. not the author) don’t have the equipment or skills to cook from scratch, I can see where this author is coming from. My daughter (age 10) would agree with you - when asked to contribute to her girl scouts “bake for the needy”, she declined to make packet-mix sugar cookies, and instead made wholewheat homemade parmesan focaccia. Her argument was that “if I was poor, I would still like good food”. For all I know the recipient might have thought - what’s this rubbish yuppie food, where are my cookies? The cost argument (buy twice as much for the same money) doesn’t necessarily work either - I find plain oats a lot cheaper than processed cereal. Now if it has to be organic, locally grown, etc that’s different. But if you buy ingredients for cooking, rather than ready made meals, you can get much more for your money. But our local food bank says specifically that all food must (a) be non-perishable (b) be edible without cooking, because many recipients live in kitchen-less accommodation. There’s hardly anything I eat myself which falls into both categories. So then I have to just guess what I would like if in a similar situation.

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