Monday, May 10, 2010

Feed My Starving Suburbs

I know that it’s supremely un-American of me, since all of us have such strong opinions about everything, but there’s something I’m undecided about. And it’s something that everyone else in my circle seems to regard as a good and noble punch on the passcard to heaven. My dilemma centers on Feed My Starving Children.

If you’ve never participated in one of their events, here’s a distillation: Drive to the remotest reaches of the suburbs, where the sidewalks and the minorities have vanished. File into a hyper-clean space in a “light industrial” complex. Listen to 30 minutes of fundraising, including video, followed by an hour of food packet assembly (accompanied by a very loud soundtrack of ‘70s hits), followed by another thirty minutes of fundraising, plus an offer to buy t-shirts and tubes of M&Ms that you’re asked to return, filled with quarters. That’s it.

There is so much about this place that bothers me, but then I tell myself I’m looking at things from the wrong perspective. I try to go along with the group, which I manage for a while, until another heretical thought pops into my head.

The first moment of queasiness comes when they trot out the poor starving Haitians in the video and I feel as if I’m watching poverty porn. Granted, this victim-plea is pretty much the norm for nonprofits. I was at a medical clinic gala a couple weeks ago where they decided it wasn’t enough to make the poor man who needed care chatter like a needy mynah bird for a camera crew (off to one side, at an arty angle, natch) and be subjected to a weepy string underscore – they made him stand up AFTER the video and give a speech. (Sidenote: Another place where I volunteer, Volunteers Enlisted to Assist People (VEAP), staunchly refuses to feature their clients in any way as a matter of policy, saying, “the people who use our food shelf are the ones who take your money at the gas station and clean your office building. You see them every day, so you don’t need to see them here.” Not as much of a heartstring tug, but high on the respect-o-meter.)

So I’m watching the video, already squirming, when they note that the food is distributed through “Christian organizations,” and I wonder what that means. Is this Christian with a capital “K?” If I showed up in a chador, or wrapped in a tallit, would I still be fed?

Then, up on the screen, I hear a teenage volunteer testify, “I’d rather be here than home playing video games,” and I think, okay, score one for FMSC. Perhaps this can be a gateway charity, one that leads to stronger stuff, like actually being in the same room with someone who’s starving.

Once work commences, things feel better, especially since I, having done this before, wisely volunteered for warehouse duty. Working in the main room, scooping rice with a bunch of bossy sixth grade girls, is really no fun. (Note for school groups: warehouse jobs are good for the kids who need a lot of physical activity and who don’t work or play well with others, like me.) The boys and I scoop stuff and cart stuff, until the boys start to get tired and the old guy volunteers kick in. I am to the bottom of a burlap rice bag and struggling with it, so I ask one of the old guys if we can cut it open. “Well no, because they use these bags to line their huts,” he says, quietly and sadly. Feeling overfed and overhoused, I shut up and get back to work.

Then I hear a big whoop from the main room, where the stations are vying to see which one can pack the most. A friend of mine works at a company which sends their sales force to FMSC each year. “I love it!” my highly competitive friend says. “We have huge contests to see who can pack the most.” Yeah, I think, that Jesus really missed a bet, not putting a point structure in the Beatitudes. “Ten points for clothing the naked, special triple bonus for feeding the hungry, and on Wacky Wednesdays, a 10% topper for visiting people in prison!”

Now I’m back to where I started, all world-weary and mistrustful. Peeking through the warehouse doors, I can’t deny that everyone seems very cheerful. People love to work together for a common goal, and to see the tangible results of what they do. But are they any happier here than they would be at Build-A-Bear or Paint-A-Plate parties? And, to ask an even more heretical question, does this stuff really need to be packed by hand? I’m sure the nice people at General Mills, just up the street, would have some good ideas about how food packing can be automated. That Industrial Revolution, it really did have some swell concepts. But I'm guessing that it’s the actual physical labor, whether necessary or make-work, that helps people feel they’ve really accomplished something.

And now my shift is over, and they’re starting to encourage us to buy those tubes of M&Ms, so I’d better quit while I’m ahead, and still, it seems, undecided.

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