(Image Credit: Personal photograph by a friend)
My article on political tribalism creating lack of empathy among some Canadians was critiqued by @MaretJaks on Twitter. This is my response to her critique.
One advantage of social media platforms – if one is inclined to derive an advantage from something that is often portrayed in negative terms – is that they can enable us to advance our understanding of issues by fostering a kind of dialogue that would be difficult (if not impossible) to have elsewhere. My recent experience on my tweet about grocery stores labelling certain items as ‘Most Needed Food Bank Product’ provides a case in point: the responses led to me writing an article on the exchanges that took place in the replies to that tweet, and the responses to the article have further enhanced my understanding of the issue by causing me to delve deeper into the other aspects and points of view offered. One such response was from Twitter user Ms. Maret Jaks (@MaretJaks) whom I follow and vice versa. Here is her tweet (this is the link):
I thought of replying to her tweet, but the answer would have been too long – and I am not good with writing (or reading) long threads. If I try to read a thread that is longer than 7 or 8 tweets, as I continue reading, I forget what was said in the beginning. I consider it unfair to impose a similar burden on others. Her critique did require a response, though, so I thought that an article may be the format best suited for my limitations. I will address her points in sequential order as much as possible.
I am happy that Ms. Jaks has the resources to think of buying food for donation in wholesale quantities. Not everyone may be that fortunate. I have seen many people (and I was in that boat not too long ago) whose budgets were tight, but they still bought a can or two of some food item and dropped it off at the collection bin at the exit of the store, or at their local food bank. Given the inflation that we have suffered from over the past 2 years, their budgets have got even tighter. While a wholesale quantity may cost less per can, the total amount would be beyond the budget of this person. If this person buys a can of beans to donate, they should not be criticized for “making the Westons and other wealth grocers richer”.
In a similar vein, someone who can afford to donate a whole truckload of food cannot comment negatively about people who are ‘only’ buying food wholesale to donate (I have seen this happen; someone donated a huge quantity of Nabob’s coffee at a food bank near me, leading the food bank to post a notice that they did not need donations of coffee for one whole year. Normally, they are always asking for tea & coffee to be donated).
Secondly, when you buy food wholesale, it is still from the ‘Westons and other wealthy grocers’. They still get their profit margin on the product. The difference between the wholesale and retail prices does not go to their pockets in its entirety – much of it represents the ‘downstream’ costs of the supply chain from the point of wholesale to the point of retail. Specifically, the owner / manager of the individual store also gets something out of it. I am not suggesting that between buying wholesale and retail, one option is better than the other; all I am saying is that the choice depends on the circumstances of the individual donor.
ESPRIT DE CORPS
Beyond the physical part of donating the food so it is available to those who cannot afford it is the aspect of community spirit. If anyone wants to participate in feeding the needy, that sentiment should be applauded, instead of positing (or implying) that this is a privilege for those who are better off financially. Here, an anecdote from India’s independence struggle comes to mind.
The organization leading the independence movement, Indian National Congress, was having a large public event. After the event, donations were being accepted in a tent. A line quickly formed in front of the table where volunteers were receiving donations, and some of the other volunteers saw a visibly poor man standing in the line in the distance. They thought that he had perhaps misunderstood the purpose of the line – that he was going to receive something – so they went over to him and asked him politely why he was there. The man pointed to the pumpkin that he was carrying and said that he wanted to donate it. The volunteers were mildly amused and asked him what they would do with a pumpkin. They man replied that he wanted them to give it to someone needy (Please see the note at the end of the article to learn what happened afterwards).
I am sure you get the point, but it is psychologically rewarding for me to emphasize it: a poor person had a desire to help someone needier than him. Donation – and especially donation of food – is MUCH more than merely an exchange of material goods; it is about a sense of community, of caring for each other, of adjusting our consumption – however slightly – to provide for others to whom we otherwise owe nothing, and a bunch of other good stuff that makes a society. If, in the process, ‘the Westons and other wealth grocers’ gain a few more cents out of your exercise, that is as irrelevant as can be.
I am happy that Ms. Jaks’s great-grandmother, who worked as a cleaning lady, was able to buy a home in Toronto. But the reality today is vastly different – homeownership is an unattainable dream for most ordinary Canadians. And someone eking out a living in a custodian’s job cannot own a home in their wildest dreams. Even people who would be part of the top 1% in terms of income find it difficult to accumulate enough savings for a down payment on a typical home. First off, in cities like Toronto and Vancouver, the income required to qualify for a mortgage on an average home approaches a quarter of a million dollars a year. We are now firmly in the era where homeownership is increasingly the exclusive domain of the children of existing homeowners – or those who have access to large sums of money outside Canada. With housing prices being where they are (i.e., in the stratosphere), even rents are at nosebleed levels, eating away a greater and greater share of renters’ income.
My point in addressing this is that unaffordability of housing (whether as owner or renter) is a very strong indicator of financial catastrophe at the lower rungs of the income hierarchy. Given this, I believe that Ms. Jaks’s desire to avoid what she calls (and in a certain sense, indeed are) ‘bandaid solutions’ is misplaced. A lot of people are in dire straits and need immediate relief. A perfect solution would take the amount of time that they don’t have; they won’t have survived until then. In a different scenario, if someone is starving to death in a drought-stricken area when you come across them, you feed them what you can at the moment rather than worrying that the diet is not in conformity with scientific recommendations. The plain rice that you feed this starving person may be high in carbs and therefore not preferable as the only item on the plate in the cozy confines of an urban setting, but it will keep the person from dying until you can manage to get some greens and protein for them.
Ms. Jaks’s contention is that buying can of beans in retail for donating to a food bank (or being in favour of such) amounts to ‘pretending to care’ for hunger in Canada. Here is how I see it: A friend shared with me a photo of the ‘Most Needed Food Bank Product’ thinking it was noteworthy. I tweeted the photo, expressing my dismay at what has come to pass in a rich country. People responded to this tweet in their way, adding the comments that they thought were relevant. Given the political tilt of the vast majority of these comments (on both sides of the political aisle), I concluded that there was lack of empathy among SOME Canadians for the hungry in this country. My conclusion may be right or wrong. Even if it is right, you may disagree with it for your own reasons. But it cannot be said, as Ms. Jaks does, that buying food in retail for donating to food banks amounts to ‘pretending to care’ about hunger in Canada.
People try to do what they are able to within their circumstances. As the Gujarati saying goes, a lake is composed of tiny drops; a lot of people pitching in with small donations would have a measurable impact on the situation. Also, their doing so preserves the community spirit, which I believe is absolutely vital to a society. It is feasible for the average Joe / Jane to spare $1.49 on a can of beans and drop it off in the bin at the exit of the store, or at a food bank nearby. It would not be feasible for them to donate that amount of $1.49 in cash to the food bank. And anyway, when food banks buy from the donated cash, money still goes to ‘the Westons and other wealthy grocers’. If someone buys food wholesale and donates it to a food bank, I am happy. If someone donates cash instead to a food bank, I am equally happy. And if someone buys a can of beans for $1.49 to donate because that is all they can manage to squeeze into their tight budget, I am still happy.
And finally, I request Ms. Jaks – and everyone else – that in the future, if they offer a critique of my writing (in articles or elsewhere), to please kindly tag me; it will ensure that my ability to respond will not depend on the random chance that I get to see their critique, as has happened this time. I am a big believer in the free flow of communication, and rarely take offence (if ever) as long as the communication remains within the parameters of civility. Thank you.
[Note: What happened to that pumpkin? The volunteers went to Mahatma Gandhi to ask what to do. He told them to accept the pumpkin as a donation. Once the whole thing was over, the leaders of Indian National Congress were having a meeting with prominent businessmen and industrialists who were supportive of the independence movement. At the meeting, Mahatma Gandhi auctioned the pumpkin. It has always been rumored that the pumpkin fetched 100,000 Rupees – a shockingly high amount for the time – but this has never been confirmed because whoever bought the pumpkin did not want his donation to be advertised; many people believe that the best donation is one that is kept secret.]
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