Chronic or Crisis?

The following is the April edition of Urban Perspectives, a monthly reflection by Urban Ministry veteran, Bob Lupton.  We wrestle with these questions every day at SOS.  To learn more Bob's Ministry, FCS Ministries, or to read other editions of Urban Perspectives, visit the FCS website HERE.  

Chronic or Crisis?

April 2012

By Bob Lupton


crisis requires emergency intervention;

chronic problem requires development.

Address a crisis need with a crisis intervention,

And lives are saved.

Address a chronic need with a crisis intervention,

And people are harmed.

Have you noticed that many of the same people return week after week for free food from our food pantries?  Ever wondered whether our handouts were really helping or merely perpetuating a dependent lifestyle?  Admitting and verbalizing these observations, at the risk of appearing heartless, is the essential first step toward truly effective service.

The key to effective service is accurately matching the need with the appropriate intervention.

The universal need for food is a good place to begin.  Starvation is a crisis issue; hunger is a chronic issue.  When famine sweeps a land, or a tsunami devastates coastal cities, starvation becomes an urgent, life-and-death situation.  Emergency food supplies must be rushed in without delay.  But in a stable nation with abundant supplies of food and adequate government food subsidies, occasional hunger – not starvation – is the reality that faces the less advantaged.  Food insecurity is a chronic, not crisis, poverty issue.

Food security is what free-food advocates talk about these days.  That means access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.  The poor in our country, roughly 15% of our population, are food-insecure at least some time during the year.  Even though four out of five of these households receive food from the government, there are times when their cupboards are bare.

But food-insecurity is not a crisis issue. It is a function of chronic poverty.  Unlike during the great depression of the 1930’s when one in four of our workers stood in bread lines with no government safety net to rescue them, today more than 90% of our workforce is employed and our public subsidies are ample.  Hunger is not our problem.  Poor nutrition perhaps but not hunger.  Food insecurity is a chronic poverty issue and chronic problems require altogether different strategies from crisis problems.

Starvation is a crisis need;

Hunger is a chronic issue.

Address hunger (chronic) with a free feeding program (crisis)

And unhealthy dependency occurs.

As our hearts constrain us to intervene on behalf of our needy neighbors, we certainly want our responses to be effective.  And to be truly effective we must match the need with the appropriate response.  Distributing free food (an emergency response) is seldom an appropriate response to those facing chronic food-insecurity.  It may seem compassionate at the moment but in all likelihood it will prove to be more hurtful than helpful.

But isn’t it a crisis when a family does not know where their next meal is coming from?    Admittedly, this is a crisis of a sort, the type of crisis that spurs one to action.  Hunger is a powerful motivator.  It stretches budgets.  It drives creativity.  It forces choices.  It accepts peanut butter sandwiches over McDonald’s big-meals, cool-aide over coke, beans and rice over potato chips and dip.  Food insecurity may not be all bad.

Lest we become hard-hearted and err on the judgmental side, however, let’s proactively pursue some helpful responses to chronic hunger.  Of course, one of the best antidotes to food insecurity is decent employment.  Adequate income provides adequate food.  And, as ancient Talmudic wisdom contends, the highest form of charity is to provide a man a job.  Employment training and job creation is obviously a major shift from the food pantry paradigm but it is certainly one that should be considered.  Another alternative more directly related to food is the food cooperative – a “buying club” model that gives members legitimate access to surplus food through non-profit or church structures.  Another is a bartering system that exchanges food (and other commodities) for work performed in the community.  Rather than dependency-fostering emergency responses, these and other development strategies strengthen the capacity of people in need to assume greater measure of control and self-sufficiency over their own lives.

Compassion is essential but not sufficient – the mind as well as the heart must be engaged.

The Golden Rule of empowering service:

Never do for others what they have the capacity to do for themselves.


What do you think?  Any thoughts on how we (SOS) can grow in this area?  We would love your feedback!