Christmas Confessions of a Food Bank Coordinator

christmas supper

A few weeks ago, I wrote


It generated a lot of discussion and (mostly) positive feedback. The majority of the comments were such remarks as: “I had no idea!”, “I never really thought about what I was giving to the food bank”, or “I’ve been to food banks. I know how hard it is to find nutritious food in those places”, and so on.

Now that our Christmas Hamper Campaign is in full swing, it’s that time of year again: the time of year when we all have differing opinions about how to disperse hampers.

There are community groups and churches plus the food bank who all give out food hampers at Christmas time (not counting the many individuals and families who make hampers for neighbors and friends). Lac La Biche might be small, but there’s great need. Housing prices are ridiculous, as are utility bills. With the economy in its downturn, there will be more families this year needing some holiday help.

Here’s my confession: I get frustrated when the first question people ask me about Christmas hampers is “How do you stop the double-dipping?”

(Double-dipping = one person or family going to different organizations to get more than one food hamper.)

Let my qualify the frustration with a positive: I agree 100% that everyone needing a food hamper must have a food hamper. Everyone needs at least one. That’s non-negotiable.

But when that positive is taken and made punitive — “You’re using the system” — then food has once again become a power pawn. The haves still determine how much the have-nots can have.

And that’s wrong.

As donors, we too easily forget the amount of goodies our offices put out in the weeks leading up to Christmas… we forget about the number of work Christmas parties we attend that have full course dinners… we forget the community league Christmas parties we attend… we forget the celebrations our kids have at school where there’s candy, punch and cookies… we forget about the church potlucks, the multiple family reunions, and the Christmas specials at our favourite local eateries.

We forget just how much Christmas we ourselves consume, and then turn to the person asking “Please, sir, I want some more?” and accuse them of sponging off the system.

We don’t see that perhaps the size of the Christmas food hampers here might comfortably feed a family of 5-7 people. But what about the family with 8 kids? What about the senior couple who have family descending on their household (family members who may or may not have resources to bring with them)? What about the family who suddenly has 4 extra children to care for due to a family breakup (after said family already signed up for a smaller sized hamper)?

What about the families who are living day-to-day with such high food insecurity that, once their one Christmas hamper is eaten, they don’t know where they’re next healthy meal is going to come from?

This will be my sixth Christmas coordinating a hamper campaign at our little food bank here. And you know what?

The number of families who are trying to manipulate (as in actually cheating) the system is really rather low. I can count on one hand the number of times someone called to tell me that food bank clients were trying to sell their hampers on the street. That’s 3 separate times in 6 years, and 2 of those times were by one specific individual.

How can we, as donors, re-frame our conversations around the distribution of hampers?

Yes, everyone who needs one must get one. All on board. Everyone’s agreed.

But when this goal is framed as punitive, and we shame families for trying to get more than one hamper, we’re only telling these people that they aren’t working hard enough to meet their own needs. We’ll help *this* much. But after that, you’re on your own. Pull yourself by your bootstraps!

(Remember how many other people have already hosted us in the myriad of Christmas parties and celebrations? Not a single one of us has provided Christmas food completely 100% for ourselves.)

So if a family comes asking for a hamper and if they happen to disclose that they already signed up somewhere else, I take note of it, but I still put their names down. If the people in front of me aren’t already regulars (meaning I know the family situation), then they’ve found themselves in difficult circumstances not knowing what to do or who will help.

If our food bank list fills up, we won’t share our list with anyone because that’s a breach of our code of confidentiality. But when more people come in asking for help, I will refer them to other groups who still have space on their lists. We will refer, support, and yes help create reasons for celebration.

I don’t want a single person to be forgotten. But I don’t want people to fear that there won’t be enough for everyone. Trust me: there’s enough. There are so many groups in Lac La Biche handing out hampers — food and gifts — that there is plenty to go around! So put those fears to rest. There.Is.More.Than.Enough.

Our ways of thinking can differ in terms of how we distribute our hampers. Some places take anonymous referrals and show up to surprise people at their doorsteps. Here at the food bank, we only accept a name if the person/family themselves put their own selves on our list. People know their families best. And empowerment can come when folks choose how to care for their families at Christmas. When there’s so much stigma and shame swirling around needing a hamper, we actively look for the best ways to reduce that stigma and shame. But different groups have different processes, and those can sometimes conflict.

Our way of doing things has shown itself to be effective. That is… until I meet with a family who desperately needs a hamper, but refuses to ask for help. Short of there being children or seniors being put at risk of neglect or abuse (times I have to report to higher authorities), I have to respect the right and responsibility of the adults in charge and step back. There will be people who go without because they choose to. And that is there right. It is also their right to ask for help later on without fear of judgment.

Growing pains. For all of us.

We continually seek the best ways to support the people who need help. Asking for help is a courageous act in and of itself. Scorning someone for asking for more only adds to the shame and stigma. And in reality, it exposes our dislike of feeling used.

No one likes to feel used. But struggling people don’t like being accused of being greedy.

People seeking Christmas help aren’t, by and large, looking to use us. Not in the manipulative sense anyway. Oh sure, we hear gossip about how much we get taken advantage of, but I really have to weigh out how much of that is truth, and how much of that is the Wagging Tongue Crowd conflating reality to suit their fancies.

We have great donors here at the food bank; we have great community partners; and we have a generous community overall. All I’m asking for on my Christmas wishlist is for donors to consider embracing a fresh perspective on holiday help.

Instead of being so immediately concerned with people double-dipping, why not breathe easy knowing that there is plenty to share. Just as you and I have multiple parties and dinners to attend, let’s remember that we all rely on others to help us through the holidays.

Asking for a bit extra is no sin.

It’s guts.

At least one hamper for everyone.

But let’s keep the pantry open, hey?

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