Feeling Charitable this Season? Keep Some Things in Mind...

I've lived in government-subsidized housing for the past nine years. It's certainly not a 'badge of honor' in many people's eyes, but it is definitely a unique vantage point from which to observe how society behaves toward the less fortunate. I've seen what comes in those Christmas gift bags from the Salvation Army (travel toothbrushes and pictures of Jesus, oh boy,) and I know that yes, government-issued cheese really is that good. But, having received donations of canned goods from friends, family members and others, I've learned that sometimes you actually need to look a gift horse in the mouth. Otherwise, you might end up really sick.

Consider the case of my close friend (who shall remain anonymous) and her two grocery bags full of food. She and her mother cleaned out their pantries to give some food to their local food bank, but since my fiance' and I were on a tight budget, she offered to bring them to us instead. The gift was certainly appreciated, and we made several meals out of her donation. However, somewhere along the way I noticed an expiration date on a canned good or a pack of mix. Keep in mind that I was reading this label in early 2007--the expiration date read 2003. I checked a few more canned goods; several also had expiration dates of 2003 and 2004, respectively. If you consider that most canned soups, vegetables and gravies have a shelf life of one or two years, this meant the items in question had to have been bought in 2001 or 2002!

This kind of situation has two possible motivations, but one common and very innocuous beginning. Something gets bought from the canned food aisle and put in a cupboard. Maybe it was purchased on a whim; maybe the buyer's tastes changed after that particular item was bought; or maybe they just stocked up on something and one extra can got pushed to the back of the cupboard. But for whatever reason, there it sits on a shelf for a couple of years, never used. The process repeats a few times in the interim. Then the annual season of giving sounds its call, and prompts a kitchen cleaning. These old cans of food are suddenly discovered, and rather than feel wasteful for throwing away something they surely won't eat, people pass them on to a food bank. We all know the old saying, "beggars can't be choosers", right?

That's my kinder reconstruction of events. I know that many people are indeed genuinely concerned about those who have less, such as my friend and her mother, who probably don't even realize how old the foods are that they donate. Most people don't read labels as thoroughly as I do, either. But that leaves the other motivation, and the other group of people. These individuals go through life wearing figurative blinders, who don't even bother to think about the ilk that live in a lower tax bracket or, worse, depend on programs supported by what taxes their betters can't get out of. The only time these blessed upper-middle-class patriots think about the poor is when they vote to curtail social programs, then feel guilty afterwards and drop coins into a red bucket outside the mall. For those people, donating expired canned goods is a better salve on the conscience than just throwing old food away.

Whatever the intention or lack thereof, the end result is that less fortunate people can end up with food that isn't really safe for them to eat. And, having a better education and way with a keyboard than many others in my position, I consider it my duty to speak out on all of our behalf. This is one social problem that is easily solved. It involves only the most minimal of sacrifices: a few moments of time, and maybe a few dollars at the store. If you plan to donate canned goods this holiday season, then by all means, do go through your pantry and look at all of your wares. But check for expiration dates on all of your goods: if something has a date that's expired, throw it away. If it has no date, it's probably still good, but be thorough; some dates get stamped on the bottom, on the sides, or sometimes crimped onto the end of a packet. If you end up with nothing to spare at the end of your cleaning, just get an extra can or two of something you normally buy and donate that instead. The meaning at that point is much more personal, more truly generous. Instead of just saying, "here, have this," it says, "I like this, I hope you do, too." At that point, you are indeed being a friend to the poor.

So remember this holiday season: Before you donate, check the XP date.


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