The idea is brilliant — to make Kansas City the first hunger-free zone in the country. It is the brain-child of a very sharp entrepreneurial-type Christian businessman who has a concern for the poor and a mind that thrives on solving big problems. We sat in the pastor’s office of a prominent Baptist church, a church that had taken the lead in convening the city’s decision-makers around the issues of poverty. Considerable excitement had already been generated around this idea of eliminating hunger from the entire metro area. But this was far more than a mere feed-the-hungry program — it was a community-building initiative to mobilize people of faith and good will to join together in a visible expression of compassion in their own neighborhoods. For the church world, it would serve to unite the Body of Christ across denominational barriers as they reach out to serve others in need. The man with the plan leaned forward as he explained how the strategy would work. The technology and data are already in place, he said, that identifies every church member in the greater Kansas City area — names, ages, where they live, phone numbers, email addresses, employment status, what church they are members of. This information can be assembled and printed on plat maps of every neighborhood in the city, block by block, house by house. The maps will be distributed to all the churches so every Christian can know where every other Christian in their community is located. With their churches’ blessing and encouragement, church members would contact other church members who live on their block, get acquainted, organize food collections from their neighbors and take the food to various collection points for distribution to the needy. As churches get behind the effort — organize their parishioners, post the number of membership groups being formed, report the quantity of food being gathered — momentum will build and a contagion of compassion will spread across the city. Based on reliable estimates of the number of residents at or below the poverty line, the quantity of food that could be collected each month is, in conservative estimates, far in excess of the need.
“How do you keep your data current?” I inquired. With so much mobility in our society, so many people moving, changing jobs, changing churches, it would seem that much of the data would be outdated within a year or two. “You don’t want to know,” the entrepreneur smiled. There are corporations with millions of highly secured, climate controlled square footage filled with mainframe computers that run around the clock gathering, storing, organizing and reporting everything about us, from our favorite cereal to kind of car we drive. “The data is available,” he assured me, “for a price.”
“How do you get churches to cooperate?” I asked. I know something about denominational competition, even competition between churches of the same stripe. His answer intrigued me. The food gathering would not be in the name of any particular church. It would be neighbors cooperating together around a cause that has broad appeal. Who would not want to eliminate hunger? It would attract not just church goers but compassionate people from every sector. And it would promote a sense of community, a common need that most neighbors recognize.
I was intrigued. I fired one question after another — funding, staffing, scale, collection points, warehousing, transportation — and every one had a well reasoned response. The plan had a lot of moving parts with massive logistical and coordinating challenges, but the costs were modest and both human and physical resources were there for the mobilizing. In less than an hour of intense discussion I had become almost persuaded that Kansas City might well become the first hunger-free city in the country.
But there was one remaining issue that was yet to be adequately addressed — distribution. How would tons of collected food actually reach hungry stomachs? Who would ensure that these donations would be properly distributed? Would this food be given away? By whom, in what quantities, under what circumstances? And if it were a free food program, what safeguards would be put in place to prevent multiple-dipping, hoarding, reselling food for drugs? What would keep this from fostering unhealthy dependency and becoming an entitlement program? It was obvious that this distribution issue was a thorny one, one that did not have clean solutions like the collection side of the ledger. Utilizing the existing distribution mechanisms in the city — church food pantries, homeless shelters, feeding stations — did not adequately address these troubling questions.
“We need to get the program going, and soon,” the entrepreneur was back to his sell. “Charlotte has picked up on the idea and wants to be first in the nation to roll it out!” I understood his urgency. Lose the “we’re first” distinction and you lose a good bit of the marketing sizzle. Kansas City was ready now. The plan had been vetted, a representative sample of ministers had responded favorably, there was good support from city government and the social service community. Now was the opportune time to declare Kansas City as the first hunger-free city in US.
The distribution problem could be fixed on the way, he was convinced. I was less sure. Doubling, even tripling the number of distribution outlets in the city would not get at the dependency problem. Computerization might cut down on the abuse of the system, but it would still separate people as “donor” or “recipient,” label them as benevolent or beggar. Computers could not address the pridelessness of one-way giving or the indignity of being a welfare case.
Collecting food, like collecting toys for tots at Christmas, is the easy part — logistically demanding, perhaps, but fascinating fodder for the promoter and entrepreneur. Devising new methods of distribution, on the other hand, methods that enable the poor to participate in reciprocal exchange, methods that require mutual investment on the part of both donor and recipient, methods that offer honest compensation for honest work — such would be a transformation of historic proportions. The hard part does not lie in the creation of new models — food-buying coops, food for community service, wholesale outlets — such models are there for the researching. The hard part is the re-thinking of a well-entrenched give-away mentality and the restructuring of an established one-way charity system. A hunger-free zone may be possible but a dependency-free zone? Now that is a much bigger challenge. I have to admire the Kansas City spirit. A massive and sustained food drive says much about the compassion of a city. But compassion unexamined may not be all that compassionate after all.