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Volunteering at Thanksgiving Is a Total Waste of Time

Joel Berg, the Executive Director of the NYC Coalition Against Hunger, says that there are many more effective ways to fight hunger than spooning soup a couple days a year or donating the cans of meat you don't want to a food drive.
November 27, 2013, 9:35pm

A college student volunteers at Saint Francis Inn in Kensington, Pennsylvania. Image via

I always hated that Sally Struthers “Save the Children” infomercial as a kid. It was bogarting too much of my time between my favorite shows, and it seemed like my TV’s guilt-laced Pavlovian response to my afternoon snacks. I’d often change the channel. But occasionally, I’d settle for watching the reactions of the people who had to deal with her massive perm on camera. I never donated because it seemed like a sham, and my infomercial money was allotted to worthier pursuits like Miss Cleo.

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As a grown adult, Thanksgiving makes me feels like a gluttonous dirtbag. The guilt creeps in right before I help myself to a slice of pie. It's as though Sally Struthers—shoulder pads and all— is paying me a mental house call to tell me that I’m still lazy and borderline apathetic. Every year, I think I should be volunteering at a soup kitchen instead of digging into my second round of stuffing. But I have no idea if that would even help anybody. In an era where drone strikes happen at a keystroke, there’s surely more effective ways of helping out the hungry besides picking up a soup ladle one day a year.

This morning, I spoke with Joel Berg, the Executive Director of the NYC Coalition Against Hunger, which represents more than 1,100 nonprofit soup kitchens and food pantries and over 1.5 million low-income food insecure New Yorkers, to find out if I should be doing more to help the hungry.

VICE: What sorts of people go hungry in America? Is it mostly the homeless?
Joel Berg: A few million people are homeless, and in no way do I want to minimize the importance of that, but there are 49 million Americans who live in homes and can’t afford enough food. Here in NYC, there are about 50,000 people sleeping in homeless shelters and about 1.4 million people who live in homes but can’t afford enough food. The public image of hunger is homelessness, but the vast majority of hungry Americans are working people and senior citizens who are food insecure.

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Where do you think the biggest downfall of the system is in this moment?
The American political system is fundamentally dysfunctional right now. We almost entirely ended hunger in the 70s because we had more robust jobs and a more adequate nutrition assistance safety net. Our government has been hijacked by an ideology that bears no resemblance whatsoever to reality. Many of the people who are most opposed to food stamps are fine with continuing farm subsidies or corporate welfare, or [letting people] receive Medicare when they become older. We’ve systematically allowed the outsourcing and elimination of American jobs. We’re also chipping away at the basic government safety net for those people for whom jobs aren’t enough. Ninety percent of households that are receiving food stamps benefits have at least one child, a working senior citizen, or a person with a disability in the household. The stereotype that has been created around the image of able-bodied folks who just don’t want to work is poppycock.

Poppycock?
That’s a technical term.

I've heard that you think it's a waste of time to volunteer on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
If you’re running a bank and you have a branch that used to have 20 tellers and online banking only requires ten in the branch, you wouldn’t decide to send them 100 tellers on Christmas to be more efficient. That’s basically what we’re doing. Honestly, it’s not helping, and it’s getting in the way of the people who do need to be there. That’s why I say please volunteer the other 364 days of the year if you can so you can use your professional skills to advocate for government policies.

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So are you advising people to scrap food drives altogether?
We strongly urge people to consider doing something more efficient, like raising money. A vast majority of organizations buy wholesale. If you give them a buck, they will get far more food than if you bring in a dollar's worth of donated food. Plus, it’s not nutritionally effective and sort of patronizing, like you deciding what someone else’s family eats.

That makes sense.
If you knew that your grandmother couldn’t afford enough prescription drugs, you wouldn’t hold a prescription drug drive and have everyone go into their medicine cabinets and donate medicine that they think your grandmother might need. All of the charity in the world is dwarfed by these cuts pending in Congress. If those pending cut are implemented on top of the five billion dollars in food stamp cuts that have just been implemented, you can volunteer from now until kingdom come, but there’s just going to be more hunger in America.

How many people volunteer on Thanksgiving and Christmas versus the rest of the year?
Our phones are ringing off the hook during these two holidays. Soup kitchens are stacked to the rafters, but you can see tumbleweeds in February or August at these places. If you are a skilled professional and you’re doing the same volunteer work that an eighth grader does, you might want to consider doing something a little more effective. Five hours helping a small church pantry create a spreadsheet is worth more than five months serving soup.

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Will you be volunteering on Thanksgiving?
I will not. Not even for a photo op.

What’s your big-picture solution?
This is an annual problem that needs an annual solution. It’s also a political problem that needs a political solution. After 9/11, we didn’t have bake sales to improve homeland security. We spent a lot of money to create the Department of Homeland Security because it was a national priority. [Hunger] should be a national priority because it impacts 49 million of our neighbors. It hurts our ability to be independent and competitive in the world economy, our education system, and our worker productivity. People are brainwashed into thinking that they can’t make a difference.

It sounds like you’re saying that there’s no excuse for apathy since we've got the power of the internet.
Yes. Elected officials actually track who calls and emails them. Unfortunately, America is apolitical. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the people who are engaged in this conversation are disproportionately influential.

Follow Joel Berg on Twitter: @JoelSBerg and read more about what he's doing at the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.

More problems in food and politics:

Well, That Was Stupid: The Shutdown "Crisis" Is Over

The Do-Nothing Congress Has to Do Everything at Once

Food Stamp Beer Reviews