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Hunger Action Month: Needy vs. NIMBY


Why haven’t we found a solution to hunger? Why do so many people differ on the issue? For our last Franciscan Friday post dedicated to Hunger Action Month, St. Francis Inn volunteer Karen Bushaw shares her take on the struggles of neighborhood food pantries.

In this election year we are being told by analysts that the Recession of 2008 is over, has been over for three years. At ground zero of the urban economic collapse in Philadelphia, we cannot believe this. Hundreds of people pass through our doors every day for meals – 141,405 meals in 2011 at just one soup kitchen.

Meanwhile there are neighbors who want us to shut down, and try to make that happen. With this in mind, the NIMBY syndrome (Not In My Backyard) becomes even more alarming. Franciscan-spirited individuals in particular should be the first to speak and act for the needy.

Who is drawn to a food pantry? This group includes those who can afford both a home and working utilities (gas, electric, water) but little else; those without budget flexibility, those originally independent, but now ashamed of resorting to soup kitchens are among the guests.

Newspaper articles routinely report that food pantries are experiencing record numbers of patrons while simultaneously experiencing difficulty in meeting demand. Not only are more households finding it necessary to supplement their budget via food pantries, but people who formerly were independent and even might have contributed, can no longer do so. Some, in fact, have become patrons of the food pantries.

Within the past few months this very conflict was on the front pages of the local news. Members of an established church had banded together to create a neighborhood food pantry. A good beginning worsened over time as patrons grew.

Suddenly the neighborhood was up in arms; they complained that “outsiders” were making their way to the street on which the sponsoring church was located. Neighbors complained of noise, trash, rude behavior, insufficient parking, and even persons publicly relieving themselves on their steps and sidewalks.

These are legitimate concerns. What homeowner and what neighborhood would want to face these apparent threats to neighborhood health?

Most of us want to believe that we will live our values even under duress, yet this very common experience pushes otherwise charitable folks over the edge and to mobilize to deter seemingly well-intentioned outreach.

Protests were raised concerning feeding the homeless on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the jewel of Philadelphia’s museum life. Hundreds of needy people are being fed there by a number of small outreach groups. The concerns of the objectors are similarly legitimate: health, food safety, crowd control, public urination, trash.

It is not easily resolved. The first step is for the protesters and the protested to search their hearts for their true motives. A “do-gooder” who invades someone else’s neighborhood for an hour and then vanishes may feel good about himself, but at what cost?

The task is to find a solution that honors both the needs of the hungry and the just concerns of the affected neighborhoods. It starts by talking and respecting one another. We are all in this together.

A native of Philadelphia and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Karen Pushaw started serving at St. Francis Inn as a Franciscan volunteer in 1991 and joined the staff in 1993. Since 1979, St. Francis Inn has been serving meals restaurant style to those with the greatest need and has  provided monthly food baskets for families and homebound seniors. For more information, visit stfrancisinn.org.

We prepare and support lay Catholics for two-year international, one-year domestic and 1-2 week short-term mission service opportunities in solidarity with impoverished and marginalized communities across the globe.

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