Friday, May 11, 2012

Feed my sheep

Philadelphia, like many urban areas, struggles with the visibly hungry. With people standing at street corners with handwritten signs, with men sprawled on the sidewalk pleading with passers-by, with lines outside soup kitchens. I've struggled with my own personal response to requests for food, for money, for an acknowledgement of the dignity of the person before me.

The distribution of food on the Parkway, an area famous for its museums (and Rocky's steps) and thereby replete with tourists, is now a hot button issue. The city says it is not worried about its image (it asserts this is unrelated to the opening of the new museum housing the Barnes collection on the Parkway) but about the safety of the food being distributed outdoors and so will require health inspections for kitchens where it is prepared, and they wish to ban outright distribution on the Parkway. Advocates worry that this is too much of a burden and will effectively stop the distribution of food to people in deep need. Other advocates point out that drawing hungry people indoors, to eat at tables, is not only more dignified, but also provides a chance to support them with other social services they may want and need.

On the one hand, is food safety only for those who can afford it? On the other, if the supply of food is restricted, what might the collateral consequences be? In Washington DC a few weeks ago, I watched from the warm confines of a taxi as a well dressed man in a suit tossed a half-eaten pretzel into a trash can on the corner, fished out a few seconds later by a man bundled in a tattered cotton jacket wearing a watch cap. How hungry do you have to be to pull breakfast from an outdoor urban garbage can?

I can see both sides, and don't feel competent to weigh in on the question (though an organization I volunteer with is suggesting that indoor facilities are a better solution). What bothers me most about the debates is the terminology used: "feeding sites."

After my father finished his breakfast, he would turn to the dog and say, "Let's go feed the sheep." He and his beloved Labrador retriever would head to the barn and pull hay and alfalfa from a pile and fill the mangers, feeding the animals. So for me, the use of the word "feeding" saps dignity from the people fed, feeding sites are for animals. Why is it we talk of dining al fresco on Rittenhouse Square, but feedings on the Parkway?


  1. My uncle, a Franciscan priest, ministers to the homeless of Providence, RI. Three times a week, he leads a group of volunteers who assemble packed lunches and distribute them, along with hot coffee and breakfast, in a church parking lot. Outdoors. In New England. Year-round, rain, shine, or snow.
    I can tell you that the outdoor setting does not diminish his ability to minister to the people he serves in other ways besides handing them bags of sandwiches and bananas. He has helped people look for employment, find transitional housing, and continue their educations. He regularly outfits them with winter socks and boots, thanks to generous donations. Yes, dining indoors, as Philly's St. Francis Inn demonstrates, is a wonderfully dignified way to help the homeless. But not everyone who helps feed the hungry has such facilities available to them. Shouldn't they be permitted to do the best they can with the facilities and resources they do have?

  2. You really hit on something here. I am reminded of a recent discovery. My friend's son's employer gives them ample service time at work and he was at the area's largest food bank.

    His job one day was to throw out numerous cases of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal that had just expired. We all know that just expired cereal is fine - but there is a regulation, from the state, that said it had to go.

    I think feeding people should take the highest priority. It so often does not.

  3. Definitely makes me think about my words .... as well as my actions.

    And I'm fired up by the comments of Barb! I'm wondering how quickly a few of us could start up this "lunch bag" ministry? It seems like something so do-able. Especially in a place like Tallahassee, with so many students, transient people and plenty of homeless.

  4. Barb, Thank God - and I don't mean that in the least flippantly -- that there are people who will treat others with dignity and see to their needs in season and out.

    My worry is about our language in all this, that we are stripping away the dignity by using language that feels to me dehumanizing and that will lead to decisions being made that are dehumanizing.

  5. Fran, I keep thinking what it is like to not know where or when your next meal might be, and how that can consume you....

  6. I see your point about the language used, but don't forget that we also "feed" our babies and those who are infirm. In other words, "feeding" implies giving food to someone who is not in a situation where they can give it to themselves.