Do church food pantries do more harm than good?

Food pantries, clothing drives and mission trips have become unquestioned bastions of America's charitable landscape. But do these well-intended services - many of them run by Christian organizations - really help the poor?

According to Robert Lupton, the answer is no. His new book, "Toxic Charity," draws on his 40 years experience as an urban activist in Atlanta and argues that most charitable work is ineffective or actually harmful to those it is supposed to help. Lupton is the founder of FCS Urban Ministries, through which he has developed mixed-income subdivisions that house hundreds of families. He is the author of four other books and holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Georgia.

Q: You say churches and charities can harm those they propose to help. How? A: Typically, the giving is one-way: those of us with the resources give to those with a lack of resources. One-way giving tends to make the poor objects of pity, which harms their dignity. It also erodes their work ethic and produces a dependency that is unhealthy both for the giver and the recipient.

Q: What is one of the worst instances of "toxic charity" you have witnessed? A: The food pantry idea has led to some fairly ugly relationships. The church or group sets up rules to govern how the food is distributed; the recipients figure out ways to circumvent those rules; and they become upset when they don't get the food they wanted - there's a kind of a built-in antagonism that grows between the dispensers and the recipients.

Q: Why do you think ill-formed charity is so pervasive? A: The feel-good experience draws us back in. In our newsletters about mission trips we report how wonderful and grateful the people are, but what we don't hear are the ways that the trips damage people behind the scenes. I don't think we've held up good models of development. When there's a flood or a hurricane, folks continue operating on a one-way, crisis, give-to-the-poor mentality long after development should have taken place, because it's easier for relief agencies to sell crisis than development and empowerment.

Q: You advise limiting one-way giving to "emergency situations." What do you define as an emergency situation? A: A home burning down, a bad hurricane, a devastating earthquake, a famine. What we interpret as crisis, particularly in the U.S., is a different matter. Many of those who are running our food pantries and our clothes closets, for example, feel they are meeting a crisis need of unemployed families. I contend that those are chronic poverty issues that deserve a development strategy.

Q: What is one of the best examples you have seen of a charity that works well? A: We converted our food pantry into a food co-op. Members of the co-op put in $3 a week; with that, we can purchase $30 worth of groceries from the food bank. The members of the co-op actually own it, run it, collect the money, do the shopping and decide what the rules are. It becomes an empowering process.

Q: Are there any wide-scale studies or statistical data to support your claims? A: On a national scale, look at the results of the one-way giving that has gone into countries in Africa or Haiti over the years. Those statistics are available, and they're blatant. But I don't know of any studies that have been done to quantify the harm versus the benefits of U.S. food distribution. It's an unexamined industry.

Q: It seems like you could be facing some heat for this idea. What has been the reaction so far? A: I've gotten mixed reviews. It confirms the suspicions of a growing number of people, but for those who are involved in the distribution, it feels like a slap in the face. I think the whole thing is going to be fairly controversial.

Q: What's the most controversial idea in the book? A: It might be that most of our service projects and mission trips are counterproductive. We spend as much as $5 billion dollars annually on mission trips, millions of Americans take them every year, and the amount of good accomplished is very, very minimal compared to the expenditures we're laying out.

Q: Is your book a justification for libertarian politics? A: I don't think it is a political book at all. It is a practical book - it has to do with the practice of charity. It calls for responsible charity, examined charity, rather than mindless charity.

(Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.)

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It often assuages our guilt—thats the only ‘good’ it does. THings done with the wrong motivation are never profitable.

yes it might seem one way most of the time, but that does not mean we are to stop helping the poor ...Have we not been instructed by Jesus to take care of the poor???

Let’s not exaggerate, here. If a child was going to go without food, and instead eats, then some good is done.

Whether it is done in the best or most efficient possible fashion should not take away from that reality.

Lufton’s observations address salient and pervasive problems with many current models of charity—-as expected given his familiarity with the topic.  The case for causality is, as he admits, difficult to make.  But I think it’s important that he (and many others) are (again) urging us to address development (i.e., structural causes) rather than confine our efforts to feel-good palliative methods.  Giving can indeed create unhelpful power dynamics with rules meant to ensure good behavior serving to do little more than defile the dignity of the receivers.  This need not be the case, but we often don’t know how to do otherwise.  American society treats those who receive as children, so with receiving comes rules (… ).  This moralism is nothing new; in Protestantism it dates to at least early charitable work during the industrial revolution (I see little of it, e.g., in St. Francis, though perhaps it finds it’s origins in a particular understanding of “go, and sin no more”).  

I’m strongly sympathetic to his result-based analysis of mission trips.  Similar methods are increasingly being used by donors to evaluate charities, which is a good development.  However, his analysis falls into economism a bit in that it reduces the evaluation to an economic one of costs and benefits.  Clearly the purpose of such trips is much more than the tangible (albeit often palliative) help they offer.  One hopes that such experiences transform those participating and yield long-term dividends in far more profound ways.  Yet, if we imagine that supporting such efforts is sufficient, his analysis of their efficiency reminds us that it is not.

That said, I’m tempted to suggest that a similar phenomena to what Lufkin describes is now taking place with the rash of books and articles making points like his.  While intended to direct us toward more responsible, effectual, and ethical modes of charity, these arguments are often serving mainly to assuage the consciences of the uncharitable.  It would be ironic if his intent to show our charity serves more ourselves than others would result in folks not reforming their charity, but instead feeling satisfied in their lack of it.


I don’t think that kind of black and white thinking is helpful. I don’t see the author arguing we should ignore the poor, but instead we should help them through development strategies. The available options are more numerous than continue what we are doing vs do nothing.

Yes, I agree that there is a problem with the way we help the poor. It is more complicated than crisis vs dependency because we don’t have anything in between. Churches typically don’t have any kind of long term development plan for the poor that attend their church. Some churches don’t notice that they have poor people sitting right in the pews of their churches. Some people will continue to be poor because of age, disability or family situation. Some people will take a long time (with help) to escape poverty. Some people with a bachelor’s degree are only making $9 an hour which 40 hours a week 52 weeks a year is still only $18,720 which is poverty level (officially defined as not being able to meet all of your basic living expenses) for a family of three.

That family will still benefit from a clothing closet long term. That family will still benefit from a bag of groceries every once in a while. And (pardon my starting sentences with “and”) will probably give back those clothes that they grow out of. And will probably donate more knowledgeably the kind of groceries and clothing that people can really use.

This is where the system breaks down and people start to take advantage. When they feel like the people giving to them are not treating them as partners.

So don’t shut down all the the closets and pantries, give the kind of stuff that you would want to get and treat your givees as partners.

Yes, going overseas short term doesn’t give a very good cost-benefit analysis, but it does open your eyes so that you might see more clearly that there are similar opportunities right here at home. Or it might open your eyes that you could go overseas and stay longer and do more good. Or it might establish long term partnerships that would do some real good. We need to get out there beyond our own borders and see what is going on in the world.

does wellfare do more harm than good?

This  confirms many of my thouights. In my opinion, what really rescues a person from poverty is a job. We should be doing everything possible in clearing out the road blocks to job creation. Enterprise zones, more oil drilling, lower corporate taxes, etc. This does not mean temporary busy work jobs concocted by the government that cost immensly more than the benefit delivered (like census takers), but real jobs by private business needing and valuing workers. We need a values revolution where education, moral reform, personal responsibility, hard work and parenthood are once again highly esteemed. That does not mean throwing money at these values. I believe in the fast of Isaiah 58, I practice charity, giving to the poor, but charity ultimately needs to have a more strategic focus. In short, a kind of Revival. I appreciate the fact that the author is not talking about an either/or, blank and white thinking about charity.
In regards to infrastructure development in foreign countries by church “Missions” (providing wells, re-building) I believe that if government agencies (or secular NGOs) have the expertise and can do it cheaper, quicker and more efficiently then the church has no business squandering its resources. What can the church provide that the Government can’t? What unique expertise do we have that a government or secular NGO does not have? We can bring the gospel! And if we don’t, what are we doing except assuaging our conscience and feeling good at the expense of others.

Our church provides emergency food and cash assistance to those in need. But we also host a weekly networking meeting that attempts to match employers with those needing a job. Hundreds of Thanksgiving food boxes will go out this November (we are a church of 5000), but if we can help find employment or foster a moral revolution, real change happens.

You know, I can see the “object of pity” argument, but I get nervous about an “erodes work ethics” argument. First, we’ve been instructed by Jesus to care for the poor. Second, I hardly think getting food from a pantry affects work ethics that drastically. If anything, we’re talking about very big-picture cultural values, right?

Most importantly, many of these people have children, and regardless of what you think of their parents’ coping skills, the children need food. Plus, can’t we agree that in this particular moment in history, it doesn’t matter how many skills you equip families with, there will still be a vast segment of the population that’s not going to make it.

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