Six years ago today, our family woke early, got dressed, and excitedly rushed out the door to do something good for a place that was becoming very near to our hearts. We, along with a group from our church and hundreds of other people, arrived to the venue and received our instructions. We were ready to go!
We hurriedly and excitedly performed our duties, even my little 4 year-old helped by drawing a heart on every box she encountered. Within hours, hundreds of thousands of meals were packed for Haiti. We cheered at our success!
Months later, we would be in Haiti when those boxes of food arrived. We would cheer our success again as they were unloaded from the truck and into their storage place. We would see the meals eaten and silently thank God again.
After living in Haiti for just a short time, as we worked with farmers, we learned more and more about the packed meals and how they affect Haiti (and countries like it).
Rice and beans are staples in the average Haitian’s diet, as is the case in many developing nations and impoverished communities. Rice and beans provide a complete protein and a full belly.
HISTORY LESSONUntil the mid-1990, Haiti produced all its own rice. The IMF and the United States of America pushed Haiti’s government to cut tariffs of rice imports. Feeling the pressure, they did, and American rice flooded the market at a cheaper price. This forced much of the rice farmers out of business.
Ok, so what does this have to do with sending meals?
The pressure to lower the tariff was selfish – it was a means to export at low cost, our excess* (I think that is a key word here), without looking at the potential long-term consequences to a developing nation. These nations have fragile economies, so when we tip the scale in our favor, we can do irreparable harm.
Poor people can’t afford to buy the food, why can’t we just give it to them?
The answer to this question is a deeply intricate one, and I likely cannot sufficiently cover it all. Poverty, itself, is an intricate web that, the more I learn, the more I see how complicated and challenging it is to fully comprehend. Let’s see if I can cover just some of the pieces.
For the record here, I think it is important that I note that there are circumstances in which I believe that shipping in packed meals is important. For example, post-earthquake Haiti needed emergency aid, post-Dorian Bahamas needs emergency aid. But shipping in packaged food is not a long-term solution.
How does it all work?
A food-packing event is often sponsored and hosted by a local church with ties to a country or a passion for helping the poor. The heart behind it is a very good thing. The event raises the money to cover the food – often under 50 cents for a meal.
After the food is packed, it is loaded into a container and shipped. Organizations on the ground can spend upward of $10,000 in shipping fees alone. Then the container will go into the port and through customs, where some will and some won’t need to make a payment to get it out. (Customs is notoriously corrupt in places like Haiti.)
Many organizations bring in hundreds of thousands of pounds of rice and beans and vitamin packs (which many hate the taste of and throw out) then transport the container to their facility for distribution. Distribution often goes to other, smaller, organizations like schools, clinics, and missionary-run orphanages and feeding programs.
So far, we are looking at thousands of dollars for thousands of meals to be distributed.
Some food-packing organizations advertise the cost as low as 25 cents per meal, most for about 30 cents per meal – one meal of rice, beans, and a pack of vitamins to add to the rice.
Consider this . . .
For about 40 cents per day, buying locally, a person could have rice & beans, some vegetables and even the oil and charcoal needed to cook it PLUS a simple yet typical breakfast of bread and peanut butter.
Just 10 cents more:
- provides more than a basic meal
- allows for purchases locally
- helps boost the local economy
- provides jobs and dignity
- allows nationals to help their neighbors
- creates more sustainability and less dependence
If we intend to help those who are in desperate need, it is important that we look at the whole picture and not just what is right in front of us or what our limited life experience tells us. The culture and economy in fragile communities is far different from anything most Americans could ever comprehend without ever being immersed in the culture or community (and even still it is complex and a completely different culture than all we have ever known). We must look deeper at how our efforts affect communities and people as a whole, not just how it makes us feel. Truly helping the poor means helping to alleviate poverty; ongoing food distribution contributes to the endless cycle of poverty by fueling the causes of poverty in the first place, and makes it even more difficult for a community to be self-sustaining.
Because, as compassionate people, we have been evaluating our charity by the rewards we receive through service, rather than the benefits received by the served
Robert D. Lupton,Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help
This is a deeply complex issue with many working parts. This article only touches on a small piece of the puzzle. I hope that you’ll be open to learning more about this form of charity with me, as we expand on this in future posts.