Our mission statement at the Food Bank Coalition includes the words, “to alleviate hunger.” The question of whether we should change our mission from alleviating hunger to ending hunger comes up for us from time to time. Is alleviate a lofty enough goal? Why not end hunger? Many other food banks strive for that. Another way the goal of ending hunger is stated is that the goal is to put ourselves out of business by ending hunger. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Still, our mission statement remains as it is, “The Mission of the Food Bank Coalition is to work with a network of community partners in San Luis Obispo County to alleviate hunger and build a healthier community.” As we move into the second 25 years from the first 25 years of fighting hunger in San Luis Obispo County and after having led the Food Bank Coalition for about a third of our existence, I want to share with you why I think that to “alleviate” may be a better goal than to end it.
My premise is that the process of alleviating hunger is more important than the goal of ending it. It is not a perfect world, and the hope that hunger will ever be eliminated completely is chasing rainbows. It is good to strive for that, of course, but not at the risk of missing the true value, the real pot of gold that we have to offer the world in the process of alleviating hunger. Alleviating hunger is (or ought to be) so much more than providing food. It is recognizing an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life through an act of compassion. To end hunger can be simply be to offer something to eat. But to alleviate hunger is to help transform the state of hunger into the experience of knowing someone cares, the recognition that one is valued, and that one has importance in this world. To alleviate is to ease the fears, the sense of dread and loneliness that one has when all seems lost and there is nowhere or no one to turn to for help. To alleviate hunger is to instill self-esteem, to inspire the goal of self-reliance and hope beyond hunger to new possibilities.
To accept the reality and stubborn endurance of hunger in the world is the first step toward meaningfully doing battle with it. The dragon we fight, however, is not the dragon of hunger alone. Rather, it is the diminishment of spirit, the shame piled on by society, and the fear of being alone. Therefore we need to feed the person as well as the body. In this process, it is vital not to act as a judge to determine the “worthiness” of someone seeking help and not to envy those who get something for free while we have to pay for it. Sometimes we may grudgingly give food to someone whom we believe has the ability to work for it. However, it is important to remember that every person matters and is valuable, and we don’t usually know his or her circumstance that has brought them to need help. Helping ought to demonstrate that we truly care and honor people as persons.
At the Food Bank we have dedicated ourselves to the distribution of what we like to call “real food.” By this we usually mean food that will help someone physically in positive rather than negative ways. But shouldn’t we also be open to the idea that even that doesn’t capture the full meaning of real food? Doesn’t the food become truly real when it is the means of exchange that brings two human beings together in community, seeking to share the hope and find the courage to build a better tomorrow, one life at a time? Isn’t it a matter of recognizing that this isn’t a perfect world, but there is an opportunity in the midst of imperfection that wouldn’t exist otherwise? Could it be that a bit of food given humbly and respectfully could actually heal, lift, empower, restore, and encourage far beyond what the basic nutritious food groups offer?
If our goal is to end hunger, we have little basis for celebrating after 25 years. Hunger is still with us, and likely always will be. But let our goal be to alleviate – to connect in a meaningful moment with a stranger that needs help and could be uplifted by the encounter. In this way, the food becomes so much more. If we are doing that, we have every right to celebrate because in the end, compassion and encouragement are the most important gifts we have to offer. The work of the Food Bank and in fact all human kindness is so much more than what it appears to be.