Sunday, December 06, 2020

Do individual efforts to feed the hungry detract from larger efforts?

Millions of people in the United States continue to go hungry each day. Prior to the pandemic, Feeding America, the largest hunger-relief organization in the United States, reported that "more than 35 million people, including nearly 11 million children, lived in a food-insecure household." According to Feeding America's "The Impact of the Coronavirus on Food Insecurity in 2020" released in October, those numbers represented the lowest level of food insecurity in the country in 20 years.

With massive unemployment caused by the pandemic, any gains made in trying to ensure that no household went hungry have been reversed, the report says. In its state-by-state breakdown, Feeding America details how "millions of people are newly experiencing food insecurity."

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the efforts of volunteers who started communal food fridges where people could donate both perishable and non-perishable food. Anyone who was in need of food could stop by 24 hours a day, seven days a week and take whatever they needed. Because the food fridge effort is entirely run by volunteers and donations, the food offerings vary widely. One day there might be lots of bread and eggs. Another day, peanut butter and pasta.

In response to the column, I received notes from individuals who for years had organized initiatives to feed people in need of food. One grassroots effort undertaken by two women in the Northeast was gearing up to collect donations and distribute gift bags as the cold weather began to hit. Hats, gloves, bottled water, snacks, cloth masks, hand warmers and gift cards for fast-food restaurants were among the items the women hoped to include in each bag.

Other readers, however, wondered if the various individual attempts to address hunger were too random to have a lasting impact. A gift bag to a homeless person doesn't solve the issue of homelessness, some wrote. Others wondered how helpful a communal refrigerator and pantry was to a household looking to feed adults and children if they couldn't predict what might be on the shelves when they arrived.

"Shouldn't we be putting all of our efforts behind a national effort to get rid of hunger?" one reader asked, arguing that it might be wrong to divert donations from larger efforts.

I agree with readers who believe that we should make a concerted effort to make sure that children and their families do not suffer from hunger. An organized, focused program to help get food to those in need does indeed seem wise.

But that does not diminish the smaller-scale efforts being made, whether through a community refrigerator and pantry, the distribution of gift bags to homeless people in the area, or any other creative means of trying to aid the millions of people suffering from food insecurity in the United States.

The right thing is not to think of this as an either/or choice, but a both/and. If you can get behind a national cause to end hunger, great. If you find a local initiative you like that seeks to bridge any gaps for those in need, contribute with gusto.

Yes, there are systemic reasons people go hungry in a developed country. And yes, it will take time and effort to try to address those reasons. Until that happens, getting food or mittens to those who need them most seems worth the effort. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin. 


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