EDITORIAL: Thank you is powerful

I HAD FORGOTTEN about the power of thank you. Not the reflex thank you for a gift or kindness received. Not the snarly thanks that says: Go away. Consider instead a thank you to a stranger on behalf of someone neither of us knows.
For someone like me, who has a Grinch-y side and whose efforts on behalf of others could charitably be described as sporadic, the effect of thanking strangers for helping strangers is worth a moment’s reflection. My thank-you refresher was provided courtesy of the annual Stuff the Bus holiday food drive, the second weekend of which was held at the Price Chopper supermarket in Greenport last Saturday. Some of the volunteers for this effort wondered whether all the assistance people here gave downstate residents after Super Storm Sandy would diminish this appeal. Shoppers arriving at the market were offered a list of the non-perishable food and toiletries needed by some local food pantries and asked to help fill two small school buses with donations of those items.
If there was any donor fatigue, it wasn’t detectable Saturday. Shoppers dropped off their donations by the doors as they left or brought them to the bus, handing up sack after sack of soup cans, vegetables fruit and tuna cans, boxes of pasta, cereal, crackers and stuffing mix, bottles of juice and baby food, diapers, toothbrushes and soap.
The volunteers who handed out the fliers explaining the program had the toughest job. Shoppers occasionally shied away or pretended not to see them. Some shoppers took the flier but tossed it into the cart unread. Those outposts were not thank-you rich targets.
But the thank-you motor kept running among volunteers accepting the food. And the voices weren’t on autopilot. Each donation is as different from the last as the person giving it. Forget about trying to predict who’ll give what or how much.
Food pantries in the county report record demand. Is anyone surprised? The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that almost 15% of the nation was “food insecure” in 2011, about the same percentage of people who live below the poverty line. A third of those people went without the food they need to sustain a healthy, active life at some point in the year. In Columbia County the Census Bureau estimates roughly 775 families live below the poverty line. If approximately that number of folks need some help to get enough to eat, that’s a lot of food.
Stuffing a bus or two at holiday time is a woefully inefficient way to feed them. There’s no guarantee what you’ll get and some well intentioned donors ignore the list and show up with perishable items that pantries can’t store. Most groups can make better use of cash, buying in bulk the items that provide the best nutrition for the least money.
And there’s the magnitude of the problem, because while Americans act with astounding generosity during holidays and disasters, people need to eat all year. You don’t see so many food drives in August. This is a reminder that no matter how much the public donates as free will offerings, only government can prevent widespread hunger in this rich country. That’s a fact to keep in mind as Congress debates how much to cut spending to avoid stepping off that heralded fiscal cliff and the state debates raising the minimum wage. The cliff has already crumbled beneath those 775 or so families here who try to get along on incomes below the poverty line. In most cases families include children.
The shoppers who held out food bags for volunteers to hoist onto the bus never mentioned food distribution efficiencies or politics. They saw a need and did what they could to meet it. The volunteers thanked them because the recipients weren’t there to do it themselves. That’s a big responsibility for volunteers, who can only imagine the people he or she represents. The donors don’t ask for anything in return; some looked a little embarrassed at being thanked and hurried off across the parking lot.
When you think you’ve done it right, this type of thanking gives the thanker a sense of connection and a touch of joy. But that’s tempered by the knowledge not everyone gets properly thanked. One woman parked her shopping cart near the door full to overflowing with all kinds of food from the list. She just walked away. Whoever you are, some hungry people thank you. Me too.

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