It’s mid-November. Advent is beginning in Orthodox and some Eastern Catholic churches; the rest of us won’t be far behind. And it’s a week and a half before Thanksgiving. This is the time when many families, churches and other communities are especially focused donating food and other necessary things to the poor. This year it’s going to be more important than ever. There are far, far more needy people this year, and the pandemic has made circumstances much more dire for the vulnerable.
Let’s all make sure our charitable giving is as effective and helpful as it can possibly be.
The first thing to say about this, is that the most helpful donation to a shelter or food pantry is usually cash. That way they can go out and buy exactly what they need.
If you’re donating food, that’s great. Make sure it’s the best quality food, and don’t forget to give the food items that many people forget. For example, I’ve seen a lot of social media posts reminding people to donate spices and seasonings to food pantries for Thanksgiving. That’s true and important: give herbs and spices, seasoning packets, garlic, salt, pepper, jam, sugar, honey, maple syrup. But they often forget to add that you should donate fat: oil, butter, or shortening to cook with. Give some olive oil for savory cooking and some light-tasting oil to bake with. Donate butter if the pantry or shelter takes refrigerated foods. They’re always getting margarine and “spread” instead of actual butter made from cream. Nobody deserves that trash. Give butter.
It’s also a good idea to find out the items your local food pantry gets large quantities of already, and plan accordingly. For example, every food pantry I’m familiar with gives everyone a giant sack of bone-in skin-on chicken leg quarters. I don’t know why they always have those in stock. This is good because chicken leg quarters with the skin on are delicious and versatile to cook, but they do need a little help. What do you like to season your chicken leg quarters with? That’s what you need to be donating to food pantries, and lots of it. Give barbecue sauce, hot sauce, seasoned bread crumbs, balsamic vinegar for a marinade, or anything else you use in chicken recipes. And give the same brands you use in your own cooking.
Also, if you’re giving to a charity that specifically helps the homeless: remember that the homeless often have bad teeth. So it might be very helpful to give them apples and sunflower seeds, but they might really be able to use jars of applesauce and jars of sunflower seed butter– or fresh oranges and bananas, or bags of well-chopped salad without any nuts or carrots in it. Think about the food you’d like to eat if you had a bad toothache but were still trying to get all your food groups.
To me, this is a fun part of buying food for poor people, because you get to meal plan creatively. I think it’s something that a CCD class or a youth group could have a lot of fun doing for their charitable project. You could present it like this: Imagine you were homeless. You only got one meal to get you through the day, and you had to eat it outside. Most of the meals you’d eaten lately had been really bland and unhealthy, like ramen and canned beans. Your teeth hurt because you couldn’t afford to go to the dentist. Now, someone handed you a lunch bag. What would you wish was inside the lunch bag? I mean besides a million dollars?
Perhaps your charitable giving this year is going to be something other than food. That’s great, because people need much more than food to stay alive. Maybe your family, your church or your youth group are going to hold a drive to collect toilet articles for the poor. That’s a great help because you can’t buy toilet paper and soap with government EBT benefits. Those can only be spent on food. It’s going to be even more important this year with the pandemic requiring such careful hygiene. Statistically speaking, poor people are already at much higher risk. They’re going to need lots more soap and also masks. If you’re donating to housed poor people, they can probably use a big stack of reusable cloth masks and a case of bars of soap, for example. But if you’re donating to the homeless, remember that they might not always have access to a sink or a washer and dryer. So they need travel-sized containers of alcohol-free hand sanitizer and hygiene wipes, and lots of disposable masks. Throw in a stack of those disposable hand-warmers from the Dollar Tree as well.
If you’re giving warm clothes: that’s also very important. Shelters are going to have a hard time keeping people indoors during the pandemic. Many people are going to have to bundle up and stay outside. If you’re giving to a smaller charity like a Catholic Worker Hospitality House, it’s best to call ahead of time and ask what clothing they actually need, because there might not be room to store everything. Donate the best and warmest clothes you can afford, things you wouldn’t be ashamed to wear yourself. Don’t forget socks: homeless people in particular often need new, warm socks. Some places are also collecting thermal sleeping bags and tents to help more people survive.
Thanksgiving and Christmas are a great time to take a good look at the poverty around you, and start making a positive difference. This year it’s more important than ever. These are some ways you can make sure your giving is as helpful as it can be this holiday season.
Image via Pixabay.
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross.
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