by Marion Nestle
Aug 18 2011

How’s this for an ethical dilemma?

My post of several days ago on the ethics of childhood obesity interventions elicited this interesting question from Megan:

I am curious as to what your thoughts are on individuals giving food to the homeless.

I used to give them a granola bar or a piece of fruit (whatever I happened to have in my lunch), but a friend of mine said she gives McDonald’s coupons for a free hamburger because she can carry the coupons with her more easily than a box of granola bars or a bag of apples.

Since I, myself, do not eat McDonald’s I find it hard to give anyone else McDonald’s food.  However, my friend argues that it’s a caloric dense meal and that makes it better than my one apple.  Any suggestions?

I’d like to see readers responses to this.  Giving food to the poor can solve the immediate problem, but is not sustainable in the long term and diverts attention from policy solutions to hunger problems (for a clear explanation of this dilemma, I highly recommend taking a look at Janet Poppendieck’s Sweet Charity).

But the homeless are a special case.   In my NYU neighborhood, many of us try to take care of a clearly deranged but charming homeless man who is very precise about what he asks for and will accept.  He becomes outraged if offered food.  He occasionally asks for a dollar and will not accept one penny more.

But other homeless people might be grateful for a McDonald’s handout.

Is it ethical to give food to the homeless that you would not eat yourself?  Is it ethical not to give food to the homeless?  How can you do the most good in this situation?

Weigh in, please.


  • Margeretrc

    @green foodie diva, If the food bank is giving them something other than sugar and starch laden processed food, that is not enabling, that is helping. No matter, if someone is hungry, I don’t care what they look like, I am going to try to help them, not judge them or lecture them and send them out the door hungry! That is ridiculous. Making healthy food choices is a luxury not everyone can afford and people don’t become obese from over eating, anyway. They become obese from eating a lot of cheap, processed, sugar and starch laden foods.
    @MikeyMike, you went without lunch for one day. The person you gave the yogurt to may have gone without breakfast that morning and dinner the night before and who knows how many meals for how many days. And BTW, lactose intolerant people can generally eat yogurt without any problems as the bacteria convert most of the lactose to lactic acid in the process of converting milk to yogurt.
    I agree with the comments that say that for a person who is hungry, it doesn’t make sense to quibble over whether you are providing them healthy stuff or not. What they need is filling stuff and an apple is not filling–at least not for long. Neither is a granola bar. They need protein and fat more than anything and, bad as it may be, a McDonalds meal can provide that. It will ensure that the time before they are hungry again is a lot longer than after an apple or a granola bar.
    And to answer the questions at the end of the blog, I do sometimes give food that I have decided I don’t want to a food bank or other organization (not opened, half eaten, or out of date, though). I figure if they don’t want it, they can put it in the garbage. If I put it in the garbage, they don’t get to choose whether they want it or not and they might. It’s not my place to force my values re food on someone who might have different ones or who might not even be able to afford to have values. And, regardless of all the government provided safety nets, I think a lot of people would go hungry and die if no one gave food to the homeless/private organizations that help them and I’m not callous enough to say “oh well, that’s life.” My husband and I give $ regularly to the local soup kitchen and plan on continuing to do so. And I think I will get some food coupons from local fast food establishments to carry around and give to the various placard carrying people I see as I shop around my town. I like that idea better than giving the $1.00 I usually give, which, for all I know, could be used to buy cigarettes or drugs! It’s always better to give food rather than money. Once I was accosted on the street by someone who said they were hungry and could I give them a couple of dollars? I offered to take them to a sandwich place nearby and buy them something. They declined and I declined to give them money. More recently, a similar thing happened. A person who said he was out of work asked me for money to get himself something to eat so he could go to a job interview with something in his stomach. I offered to take him to a nearby establishment and buy him some food. He accepted very gratefully and I bought him some sustaining chicken BBQ that only cost me a couple of dollars and gave him a meal that would hold him for a good while. He was genuinely hungry and I was glad to help. So how you handle this is up to you, but I couldn’t not help someone who is truly in need and feel fortunate that I have the means to do so.

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  • If the recipient has been starving for days, I think it’s better to give a calorically dense meal. A Macdonald’s meal will give the recipient more mileage than an apple.

    Yes, the apple is healthier by most measures. But if I’m homeless and hungry, I don’t really care if the food is healthy or not. I just want to be NOT hungry.

    I think there’s nothing wrong with giving food you wouldn’t eat to homeless people, assuming that the food is edible (i.e. not rotting, not poisonous). Just because you don’t like to eat a certain type of food, doesn’t mean that a hungry homeless person with nothing to choose will not eat it. We should at least leave that option to them.

  • Moira

    Homeless people are smarter and more practical than foodies. Homeless people understand food is food is food and, though they have preferences themselves, nourishment is the point of food. Probably if homeless people were suddenly overprivileged, as foodies are, some of them would take up silly affectations and become sanctimonious picky eaters, too. Would recovered homeless folks look down their upturned noses at people less affluent than themselves, as life-long foodies seem to do?

  • Christian

    Food is food when you’re hungry. When you’re hungry you could care less what it is. Just give it to them.

    Maslow’s Hierarchy.

  • Isaac A.

    Maslow’s with a big wedge of self-righteous bigotry inserted about midway up the triangle for foodies.

    Food is food regardless of need. To make more than that of it is an asinine affectation.

  • Adri

    I wish I could feel comfortable giving money so that people could choose what they want, but it’s just not a good idea. You can’t tell by looking at someone whether they are going to use the money for food or drugs. I prefer not to engage directly with the individual, but do give and volunteer at my local food bank and homeless shelter. While I am occasionally shocked by the amount of processed foods that they distribute, logistically these items are shelf stable, sturdy and can withstand being shipped around the service area. The larger food banks do try to work with grocery stores to provide fresh ingredients, but canned/boxed will always be easier to deal with.

  • Emma

    Wow, good question! I used to buy an extra loaf of delicious but nutritionally sub-par Italian bread for a homeless guy who spent much of the day sleeping on a bench near my work. I would just balance the bread on top of this things and slip away, but I’m not sure if that was actually helpful to him or simply a way to assuage my guilt. I don’t agree that this is somehow a “foodie” issue, though. Caloric density is all well and good, but this is clearly not just about that. Most of us, for instance, don’t have to worry about getting scurvy.

  • I recently prepared some meals for homeless people who we host at our Unitarian church when weather conditions are dangerous (we had several homeless die of exposure the winter before last in Santa Barbara, of all places). I tried to provide a healthy dessert — apple pieces — and I felt pretty foolish when I was helping with the food service and discovered that the majority of our guests had dental problems so serious that eating a raw apple was not possible. Ethics are so important, and we can all learn to apply our principles to difficult situations. I learned a lot that day.

  • Ben

    three words “middle class dilema”. Like the homeless person cares. I’m sure they would refuse your blanket if it wasn’t made from organic cotton.

  • L

    I try to address the problem long term; I figure giving to the food bank helps more than 1 snack one day. I don’t see any homeless people on a regular basis though so helping one that I know on an ongoing basis isn’t really an option.

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  • Grandarch

    One point not clearly enunciated so far is what Banerjee and Duflo (2011) refer to as the extent to which the poor (or homeless in this case) are truly hungry. While it may seem self-evident, a number of studies show that the extreme poor spend a good portion of income on tastier calories rather than the cheaper, more nutrient rich calories of grains and the like. For example, if a family were truly starving (and prefers food over all else) we’d expect it to spend less on tobacco, alcohol and sugar (an expensive source of calories). More convincingly, for small increases in wealth many such families spend more on tastier calories (less millet, more wheat, rice, shrimp, chicken, etc.). While perfect rationality can and should be questioned for a homeless person, we can ask ourselves the extent to which a preference for McDonalds is more a taste preference rather than just being the cheapest source of nutrient-rich calories. It begs the question about giving what we consider best (or cost effective) versus what people prefer.

    Second, in France we have restaurant tickets from Sodexo that pay for an 8.50 euro lunch. They can only be used for food, an most places take them, including good carts. Many give them to the homeless (there’s less of a private charity tradition). I wonder about people’s thoughts on giving these.

  • windfray

    hey Grandarch that sounds like a superb idea actually… do you buy them from sodexho like vouchers to give away? works so much better than money since you can be sure the recipient actually uses it to get food instead of other vices. wonder if the US has something similar to this.

  • Lisa Garibaldi

    My mom buys $5 Subway gift cards to give to people. That way they can get a vegetarian sandwich or one with meat and cheese ($5 foot longs!), whatever they prefer. They are also small and easy to carry around. It’s good in Northern California where there are lots of homeless kids who don’t eat meat.

  • E Kellogg

    Just yesterday Christmas day, My son, girlfriend and I had this
    conversation. I believed that eating mac donald’s food
    was better than starving.!!!! I think children would be better of having macdonalds food than starving. Well, I nearly got
    run out of town. Both son and girlfriend objected to the
    poor nutrition that people eating macdonalds food were getting……..They said…how could I an educated person be having this type of reasoning? I really would like to know am
    I so far out of touch with reality as to think that eating fast
    food is better than starving.
    Oh by the way one another reason they gave for not eating fast food; fast food kills you. As if starving does not.