Acton Institute Powerblog

Giving Good Food Well

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A local food bank and distribution network was featured on a Michigan Radio piece the other day, and it really captures how to give to people in a way that respects their dignity. For one thing, when you are giving food to the hungry, you don’t just hand them wax beans and canned beets.

John Arnold, executive director of Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank, says that people shouldn’t be getting what he calls “bomb shelter food.”

“Products like powdered milk and dry beans and dried noodles sound and look nutritious but you never see in people’s shopping cart,” he observes.

Instead, as Kyle Norris reports, Arnold recognizes that “nobody eats that stuff, but somehow food agencies think that’s what they supposed to give people in need. Arnold says we need to get people good, nutritious food in a way that makes it fun.

Arnold also says agencies have to let people pick the food they want, as opposed to handing someone a box filled with a random assortment of food they may or may not eat. These things aren’t just his personal theories. He points to research from United Way and Michigan State University that backs these conclusions.”

One of the principles of effective compassion is that we are to discern and respect each person’s freedom, constitutive of their dignity as created in the image of God. In this concrete case, it means in part having people exercise their own autonomy and choose their own foods, rather than be handed what someone else assumes they need.

So this is a good rule of thumb for treating others as you do yourself: “When we do care for one another it should be with food we’d want to serve our own family.”


Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Roger McKinney

    While I agree with your points about giving, I’m surprised that really poor people are so picky. I compare them with the poor I knew in Africa who would never turn down any gift and would be grateful for any food of any kind. If you can afford to be picky, are you really poor?

  • Sure, they should just be grateful to get whatever they get, right?

    The fact is, the kind of hunger and poverty we’re talking about here isn’t typically the grinding sort found in developing nations.

    But still, there is chronic hunger, and here in Michigan especially we’ve got a huge amount of people who are relatively newly out of work. So maybe they need to adjust their living expectations, but the poor as well as the rich are formed by popular culture.

    If you’re looking to be effective in your giving, to give out food that will actually be eaten, then handing out stuff no one really wants to eat isn’t going to work all that well. Fighting the culture of brand expectation is a rather larger issue.

  • I’m very interested in this discussion as a director of a ministry that does food distribution to those in need. I’m often challenged by the expectation of the poor, “brand expectation”, and the expectation of the donor, “take what you can get” compassion. Connecting these two and learning from both ends is critical, and I’m always searching for better ways to do this.

  • Tracy Jue

    Interesting here about the challenges Food banks face in providing “Brand Foods” to the needy. I see a consistent problem in Northern California for basic foods such as rice, beans and potatoes as the most essential food needs. Today not enough people contributing basic foods showing the shift of Americans eating processed food and sugary foods that are not good food choices to begin with.

  • Steve Schaper

    I have seen chum – fish pieces not fit for human consumption, but meant for bait, set up as food in food shelves. I mostly see food that is supposed to be thrown out – past expiration, damaged cans, damaged boxes and sacks – food that supermarkets ‘give’ because they can write it off when they were supposed to dispose of it. I’m not talking cosmetics, but asepsis breach. And even then, there is not nearly enough to meet the need.

    Whatever you do to the least of these My brethren, you do also unto me.

  • Mary Arnold

    Yes, I heartily agree with the Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank approach. I am happy to report that St. Vincent DePaul Society in Indianapolis, IN has run their food bank that way for years and it is extremely successful.