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.


  • This is a really interesting question, and one I’ve thought about on numerous occasions. I’m vegan because I believe it’s cruel and wrong to exploit animals. I’ve donated food to homeless shelters and community organizations, and I always choose healthy vegan foods: peanut butter, canned veggie, pasta and grains. It’s definitely possible to help homeless people without resorting to processed junk food. I agree with the other commenters who have said this: you should give food that you yourself would eat.

  • Esr

    I believe it is what you eat you should give our. Its only fair
    because you know the risk involved in some diets you avoid. So why
    Give out something which can be classified as “poison” to you? Help them in living a long healthy life

  • Just give.

  • I think it’s safe to say that the health credibility of McDonalds is widely known. This idea of giving a McDonalds coupon instead of a piece of fruit because it’s more convenient to you is reflective of value-laden perceptions of the poor. Eg. “They’ll take what they can get,” or “they’re second class citizens therefore it’s appropriate to give them low quality food”, or even, “They won’t mind since they don’t know better.” Is the purpose of giving food to someone without food to make yourself feel better, or to offer sustenance to someone who otherwise doesn’t have it? If it’s the latter, then it’s worth inconveniencing yourself to give something wholesome. If the former, then it’s really not about giving as much as it is feeling good about oneself…

  • Why is an ethical dilema?????, should we give the WORST food to the poor????, homeless makes them 2nd class citizens????…… Don’t’ do to others what you would not do to yourself…..bananas, avocados, nuts…we have some calorie dense FOODS….

  • Gregor Erbach

    I think there is no ethical problem giving food that you would eat yourself, at least under the condition that the recipient would be happy to buy the same food if they had the money. And the McDonalds coupon is not just food, but also gives them a legitimate reason to spend some time in a warm, day and social place on a cold and rainy day.

  • Isabel

    In Portugal, we don’t have McDonalds coupons. But if you have coupons from Mcdonalds, why don’t you, as community, pressure big food retails to do the same, or even restaurants could offer food coupons?
    Giving the large amount of calories in a McDonald’s meal, it could be a nice solution, if the nutrients were where. If you are not giving to homeless nutritious food, you are only getting them fat and not healthier, you are not fighting malnutrition, just hunger. So in my opinion, an apple and a granola bar it’s a much better option than a Mcdonald’s meal.
    Recently, new projects have been created to fight the hunger amount homeless and poor people. Some restaurants charge an extra 1 Euro per meal and/or give the kitchen’s leftovers (this food was not served to the costumer) to non-profit organizations. Food bank is also very important in Portugal and it’s the main source of food for local organizations.
    What I mean is that nutritious foods are better than energy dense foods, the solution must come from the local community, and in times of crisis, we need to get creative.
    (Sorry for my poor english, it’s not my first language)

  • Jesus

    To ethically nourish any homeless person you must, of course, bring them to your home and cook for them a complete meal of nuts and berries and wine – the same fare you and your family consume.

    These people are merely homeless. They are not criminals because they are less affluent than you.

  • I think it is legitimately an ethical dilemma. If someone likes McDonald’s, and you give them a McDonald’s coupon, you are doing unto them as you would have them do unto you: serving you with respect and regard for their preferences. If, however, you object to McDonald’s on broader grounds than simply personal preference–say, the abuse and mistreatments of animals, people, and ecosystems–there is a legitimate dilemma. I think it’s important not to make the perfect the enemy of the ‘good-enough.’ The perfect would be inviting the homeless in for a delicious meal prepared with care and sitting to eat with them as equals. The good would be community kitchens/dining rooms where ANYONE could eat something delicious and wholesome for a nominal price, or for nothing at all. The ‘good-enough’ might be a McDonald’s coupon–which brings with it not just coffee and/or calories, but, as another commenter said, a warm and social environment.

  • sorry, that should be “serving you with respect and regard for YOUR preferences.” If I love Whole Foods and my friend loves McD’s, the Golden Rule would NOT be served by me giving her Whole Foods gift cards.

  • Ben

    It’s not a dilemma at all.
    If you want to give the homeless calorie dense food, there are a multitude of healthy options that don’t support the fast food industry.

  • kel

    it might be good counter culture marketing to have homeless people stacking fast food joints. Seriously, its a dilemma. But crap food is better than no food, id be happy if i were homeless to and , as the implication seems to be, hungry. I was brought u wit the ethic of dont ‘donate’ , agitate, but in my adulthood i believe in short and long term soloutions. they are not mutually exclusive paradigms, so long as people dont use ‘philanthropy’ as an excuse to not try and generate change at a policy level to try and make the world a better, more livable and fair place for all

  • Because of possible drug problems, I would always suggest giving food over money. I would not want to support someone’s substance abuse by giving them cash. As for the type of food–does it matter? If I were starving, I would not be picky about whether or not the free food donation I was handed was organic or not. I would just be happy not to have to pluck something out of the trash that day. . .

  • Moses

    Elitism and food snobbery are fundamentally unethical. By definition there is no possibility of behaving ethically around disadvantaged people. Stop prescribing feel-good escape fantasies to excuse away bigotry.

  • Tanya

    I wonder if anyone ever asks them what they would like to eat? Would they prefer money so they can go buy what they like to eat? I have to agree with Moses, this whole discussion sounds an awful lot like food snobbery with no concern for what the person actually wants. I say help them as best as you can in a way that enables that person to care for themselves.

  • Anthro

    I’m with Thib for the most part. All this judgement as to the “needs” of homeless people! I give them money. What they do with it is their business–I am not their judge or their keeper. If asked directly for food, I give whatever I have with me, including my take-out meal, which I have done more than once. If I have no food, I will offer money.

    The larger problem, as others have said, is why there is homelessness in the richest country on earth?

    There is one exception to my policy–if the person is obviously in a horrific state (drugs, or mental crisis), I will attempt to make a referral to a shelter of some kind, and I may call a shelter or other agency to report that assistance is needed.

    Another thing I have done is to leave non-perishable food and some other supplies at a homeless camp I discovered while hiking in a wooded area of the city.

  • Marco

    If you ever decide how to behave ethically around the homeless you might consider behaving the same way toward the obese. In either case, you will have to climb down from your high horses.

  • Kris Nesheim Reid

    THis is an issue that I face weekly. I am in charge of our food pantry at church and my fail safe rule is: I only give out what I would eat. It amazes me when people donate things to the NH foodbank and the products are years beyond their expiration date, or open and damaged so badly they could not be safely consumed. But yet, they feel as if they have done a good deed.
    The NH foodbank has a great program this summer where they are utilizing donated farm land to grow fresh vegetables to be available for the agencies that distribute food throughout NH. There are also new federal regulations that are requiring foodbanks/agencies to look at what kinds of foods are distributed. They are making a move to lower sodium soups/prepared meals, and lower suger canned fruits and cereals.
    When it comes to the personal dilemma that some have shared of giving food or money whatever is on your heart. It is not our place to judge. When it comes to distributing food from our pantry, I don’t want to be the food police and decide who gets what, or who deserves what. I also ask people what are their likes/dislikes and any allergies. I don’t want to distribute food that will not be eaten. I try to be fair and equatible and I am sure at some point we have been taken advantage of, but I don’t want the situation to ever arise that someone went hungry because I felt like they didn’t need it.
    Food pantries are suffering in this economy because they need is higher than it has ever been. Please consider donating anyway you can: time volunteering, food, or financially.

  • green foodie diva

    Is it ethical for food pantries to supply food to overweight people or people at risk of becoming diabetic, even if they are poor or homeless? Isn’t that enabling? Shouldn’t these people just be given a stern lecture and firmly but briskly shown to the door?

  • Recently I offered a lovely bag of protein-rich pecans to a guy on the street. He turned up his nose and said “Lady- I don’t want those”. OK then. Sometimes I don’t have any ready cash and so DO stick a piece of fruit out the car window. Some will take it; others won’t. In fact there’s both a peach tree and and apple tree in a nearby park… and their delicious fruit goes untouched by the local folks “sleeping rough”. McDonald’s gift cards are ALWAYS received with delight and smiles- so, what the heck? Who am I to be the judgemental Nutrition Nazi? When you can just SEE in a person’s eyes the anticipation of a hot, tasty, greasy-and-therefore-satisfying meal eaten in a warm place – the “ethical question” is really moot, no? BTW, when the weather gets cold I also make whole meals (wholesome and delicious braised chicken with vegetables for ex.) and actually deliver them to people that I know are living in their campers.

  • MikeyMike

    Recently I offered a homeless guy my yogurt. I didn’t think he would take it but he did so I had to go without lunch myself that day. I hope he was lactose intolerant.

  • Audri Good

    Please, by all means – give McDonald’s coupons to the homeless. I’ve been homeless, and giving me an apple would have been ludicrous. Its not healthier if that’s all i eat that day. If you can afford to give them a decent quantity of healthy food, that’s awesome! -but its much better to give someone a 400 calorie “poison” burger packed full of the 3 macro nutrients then a single apple. Despite being some of the worst food around, McDonald’s is still healthier than going hungry.

    Also, while it may seems silly to you – the option of going into a restaurant and getting a treat like a normal person can make someones month when they are homeless. I will always remember getting a dollar and some change together and splitting a dollar burger inside a McDonald’s with him while homeless. Its food for the soul. (However it drove us crazy watching everyone throwing away half of their fries and drinks right in front of us. (We stank and we couldn’t look away – we were obviously both homeless and hungry – just didn’t want to be a nuisance and ask – wanted so badly to simply enjoy the “vacation” of being semi-normal)

  • Danielle

    Maybe the true ethical dilemma in this type of situation is why there are so many homeless persons who need handouts of food to survive? Enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formally known as food stamps) is at an all-time high. Unemployment remains high as well. At the same time, our federal government is seeking to balance its budget on the backs of the poor. Funding for the Emergency Food and Shelter Program has been cut – and in my area – local food pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters who rely on these funds to help struggling families stay off the streets and have access to nutritious meals have seen cuts of 77% – 90%. So, in my mind, we are asking the wrong question. It should not be, “What type of food should I give to someone who is hungry?”, but “Why is it that in our rich nation, United States Citizens have to rely on me giving them a hand-out to meet their basic nutritional needs?”. So, please give whatever you can. Then, pick up the phone and call your Congressperson and tell them that it is immoral to balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable, and that funding be maintained for Emergency Food and Shelter Programs, the supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, The Supplemental Program for Women, Infants and Children, and any other food and nutrition program. Then, hopefully, one day, we will not have to worry about what type of food to give out to homeless persons, because they will all have shelter and nutritious foods.

  • You can ABSOLUTELY make a difference by giving food to people who need it. This isn’t just the homeless people living on the street. Depending on how segregated your community is, it can easily be one of your child’s friends or neighbors.

    As an example of what one single individual can accomplish by giving her time and food to homeless people, Betty Chin feeds every single homeless person in my home town every single day, and she’s done it for many years. She makes hundreds of sandwiches herself.

  • Mitzi

    I’ve prepared a simple sack lunch for a homeless man I used to pass on the way to college every day. He liked it. My husband prefers the McD’s coupons as convenient. One thing to mention is that a homeless person probably does not have access to dental care. If you have bad teeth, a soft burger would be far more edible, if less healthy, than an apple or a granola bar. I gave out PBJ on wheat with yogurt, a piece of fruit, and water. Most of it would be edible even if your teeth are not so good.
    Our homeless are universally grateful for the $5 gift certificates my husband gives them. As stated above, going into a restaurant and ordering food is a boost to their battered self-esteem. That may be worth some fat and cholesterol.

  • Jon

    A comic, a few years back, had a guy giving food out to the homeless. The whole idea was that he did it by accident, but one strip, the punchline was that one of the homeless guys was a vegan. (The joke, of course, being that nobody who’s truly homeless can care where their food comes from.)

    The point is, homeless people really will take anything as long as it’s not deadly. Of course, the calories may be more in a McDonald’s meal, but I remember from Super-Size Me, learning the vitamin content of McDonald’s food. Even vitamin B12, only found in the exact things we stereotype McDonald’s as serving, wasn’t much.

  • Since hunger is likely to be a regular experience for many homeless people I’m sure they would appreciate any way to keep hunger at bay for a period of time. Obviously, high fat, high protein, calorie-dense foods are the best way to do this.

    Even though the food itself may not be ideal, McDonalds’ food is probably one of the best options to help reduce hunger. It also means that hunger is one less problem they have to deal with in their life.

    Then, once they get back on their feet, they can be more selective about the food they eat.

  • George P.

    But, but, but won’t the egregious McDonalds food kill them outright before they can “get back on their feet”? I mean, you all make it to be such lethal poison, and all.

    Heh, heh…”get back on their feet”…that’s code for get back to work at some entitled do-nothing job like tenured NYU professor or state progam funded “nutritionist”, “dietitian”, “social worker” or “family counselor”.

    But for the grace of God you all are not homeless in this economy, yet. Here’s hoping Congress really cuts budgets, ends grants and trims the deadwood out of public health programming in 2012 and 2013.

  • This is a huge dilemma. I have spoken to advocates for the homeless and service providers who suggest that you give to programs that feed the hungry and combat homelessness. There are several concerns with giving directly to the homeless: it allows them to continue to be homeless, may enable drug and alcohol abuse, prolongs exacerbation of illnesses (medical and psychiatric) from the conditions of homelessness, allows a few to scam the public, etc. Being homeless is dangerous and these individuals are subject to victimization: enabling them to continue is a problem. I give to food banks and homelessness programs.

  • Sheila

    I regularly donate food, funds, and volunteer time to local food pantry and soup kitchen where anybody who is food-insecure may receive assistance, homeless or not. When I select food to donate, it is the same nutrient-dense food I purchase for my home. My prayer is to bless the people eating the food so they may have good health and more prosperous times ahead.