Re-Think Serving...

The following is from Bob Lupton's montly newsletter, Urban Perspectives.  You can subscribe to the newsletter or read more here.  We highly recommend Bob's latest book Toxic Charity.  Check it out here.

Back Pack Pals

“We have started a Back Pack Pals Program (kids that are hungry will get a back pack of food for the weekend). We have heard from teachers that this has helped so many kids, they are improving with discipline issues, academics, parent/teacher relationships. I was wondering your thoughts on this type of program, and how can we adjust it, so that it is NOT a handout or "entitlement" situation?  We have so many church members that are active in this ministry, we DON'T want to just kill it – there might be some blow back. How can we adjust it so that it is more in line with the philosophy you espouse”  Donna<


I understand the appeal of the back pack food program.  Hungry children always touch the hearts of compassionate people.  And the back pack concept is such an easy image to convey.  All you need is one moving story of a neglected child and it becomes a highly marketable approach.  Easy to organize and expedite.
But take a quick glimpse behind the scenes at the home life of the child and the need immediately becomes more complicated.  A single mom struggling with addiction, predatory men coming in and out the home, food stamps being bartered for cigarettes and alcohol, back pack food being used to support a destructive lifestyle.  Or perhaps the situation is not quite this dire.  Perhaps it is a mother, probably single, who is working two jobs to support her family but must leave her children unsupervised much of the time.  She may be doing her best to provide, being as responsible as she is able, but the influences of the street constantly lure her kids into unwholesome activities.  Back pack food supplements are appreciated but they do not address the real pressures she is facing.
What every child needs most in life is a stable home with two effective parents.  In our inner-cities one effective parent is usually optimal.  Food security, as important as it may be, does not compare with the need for a responsible parent.  Our society provides a food safety net for children – free meals at school and food stamps for the family.  Such entitlements do encourage dependency but are probably necessary when families face difficult economic times.  But when the crisis passes, when parents are back at work, when the back rent is caught up, this is the time for development – not continued emergency assistance.  Struggling parents need a plan, a coach, a training program, a better job, hope.  And kids need the benefit of enheartened parents.  Does a back pack food program offer this?  I suspect not.

The only way to responsibly assess the need for additional supplemental weekend food is to have personal involvement with the family.  Teachers can give anecdotal reports on a few children, usually without much depth.  School social workers sometimes have a better feel for home life realities.  After-school programs run by churches and non-profits often have the best insight.  The more personal time invested with a child and his or her family the more accurate the picture.  The key to effective service, of course, is to accurately assess the need, then apply the appropriate remedy.  A broad brush, indiscriminate distribution of resources without in-person knowledge of need is not only irresponsible, it may actually be harmful.

So what to do with your Back Pack Pals Program?  I guess you first have to ask: “Who is this program for?”  I know it seems so compassionate, so right, so Biblical.  But it is unexamined charity.  In order to verify that it is transformative rather than toxic, due diligence must be conducted to determine the down-stream impact.  Anecdotal reports from teachers are insufficient.  Homes and families must be visited, personal relationships must be forged, insights must be gained to determine priority needs and appropriate actions.  Obviously, this cannot be done en masse.  Or quickly.  It is personal work.  It does not lend itself to large numbers.  It will likely require trustworthy partners on the ground who will serve as guides.  And it will likely call for engagement far more involved than food collection and distribution.
Which brings me back to my earlier question: “Who is this program for?”   I know how we Americans love to design efficient systems that yield big results.  And we’re good at it.  That’s why programs like Back Pack Pals are so appealing to us.  But effective service among the poor is neither efficient nor large-scale.   Effective service is relational.  We might take the position that the teachers have the relationship with the kids and Book Bag Buddies is serving the poor by supporting the teachers.  Perhaps.  But teachers are not social workers.  They are about developing young minds, not intervening in family affairs.  And if a child’s greatest need is a stable home and an effective parent, then Book Bag Buddies as currently structured does not go to that need.  Further, without accountability there is no assurance that the donations are benefitting the intended recipients.  The program is an emergency response to a chronic poverty need.  Development, not donations, is what a chronic situation calls for.

So how could the program be modified to a more developmental approach?  A food co-op for parents might be one approach.  Parents could purchase donated food, thus increasing the buying power of their food dollar while preserving their dignity – and supporting their responsibility as providers for their families.  Kids could do extra duties around the school to earn their back packs.  Back packs could become rewards for performance and achievements.  Delicate business perhaps, but it would certainly reveal just how important the food is to them.  To the extent that there is mutual exchange in the program, to that degree there is dignity and accountability.
Responsible charity follows this progression: immediate care with a future plan; emergency relief with responsible development; short term intervention with long term involvement; heart responses with engaged minds.  If we do it right we will see the following outcomes: human dignity is enhanced (mutual exchange); trusting relationships grow (accountability over time); self-sufficiency increases (employment, self-reliance)
Hope this helps,

 Bob Lupton, April 2013