Don’t donate bad food and call it ‘dharma’

There’s a troubling pattern among some people who give food away to homeless people and beggars.

I have seen this happen first-hand with my folks, my extended family and their wider group of neighbours and acquaintances. All of them are Brahmins, so I don’t know if this is a Brahmin thing because they’re who my family hangs out with and/or lives around; because Brahmins make up the most part of India’s affluent lot that can afford to give away food on a regular basis, especially of the sort I’m about to describe; and/or because there’s an entrenched tradition of giving away in Hinduism that modern conservative Brahmins’ interpretation has twisted to include a not inconsiderable sense of pity, and the sense of superiority that comes with it. One way or another, it seems safe to assume that this is a Brahmin thing.

The troubling pattern is really a lack of common sense: these people give away food they’re not going to consume because eating it gave them indigestion or something like that, to other people who are typically already in very poor health, in the name of dharma. But this can’t be dharma: it is selfish and cruel. When our own better-fed, better-attended bodies can’t handle these foods, I don’t understand the Ariadne’s thread that leads to the conclusion that people who desperately want for food, or every next meal, will be okay with it – perhaps based simply on the assumption that food of any form or kind will do.

This morning I had a quarrel with my neighbours about giving away a bag of Kellogg’s Chocos to beggars near a temple they were going to visit; their defence was peppered with the word ‘paavam‘, Tamil for ‘pitiable’ (roughly). Chocos has maida and is loaded with sugar, and leads to constipation, at least without also consuming lots of water and fibrous foods. By giving ill-fed people Chocos, we burden them with the responsibility of finding these other foods as well, or living with the pain, discomfort and the prospect of falling very sick later.

I’m additionally concerned that:

  • As we valourise acts of ‘giving away’ as part of efforts to circularise our economies,
  • As the makers of junk foods push harder (p. 5) into developing countries,
  • As “food that is considered to be unhealthy from a biomedical perspective is often cheaper, more easily available and aggressively promoted by the processed-foods industry” (source), and
  • As inequities in the global food system keep the price of unhealthy foods lower than that of healthy foods,
  • As people with lower levels of literacy have fewer or less efficacious protections against suggestive advertising, from bodies regulating advertisements or food-safety standards and compliance – or both…

… we – especially common-sense-challenged Brahmins – will give away more illness in the name of dharma. This isn’t really a novel concern either: I recently saw an ad in which wealthier people leave a bag of food – from one of those burger + fries + soda type fast-food chains – near unsuspecting homeless people, and when the people discover the bag, the food inside and then smile, the camera makes sure to get that up close. They’re smiling because it’s food and they’re hungry, but giving them food that has been widely documented as contributors to poor heart health and diabetes is to exploit their glee in order to feel better about yourself.

I also believe the same thing goes for many of the same people who live in gated apartment complexes or high-rise apartment buildings, and feed pigeons and (especially) free-ranging street dogs in the name of dharma, but are really fostering a nuisance – deadly in the case of dogs – and doing nothing to be part of the solution (buy what you need, dispose your organic trash properly, don’t feed dogs, help the city neuter/shelter/adopt them instead). As for people: please donate food, but do apply what you’ve learnt in school, what your doctors tell you, whatever your salary (or giving-ability more broadly) is and the general health condition of the person you’re donating to to determine the most nutritious kind of food you can give, and give that.

If you’ve determined that the answer is Chocos or cheeseburger + fries + Coca Cola, however, I hope you can see what that says about your intelligence, your assessment of your privileges and your attitude towards your wealth.