Saturday, December 1, 2012


I first wrote this article for my December 20, 2000, column in the Arizona City Independent/Edition. Two years later, I began an annual tradition of reprinting the piece in my column around the beginning of this holiday month. I hope these thoughts encourage people to think about the importance of remembering the needs of less fortunate people, not only during the year-end holiday season, but throughout the year.

Each year at this time we can do something we should be doing all year long, but it takes more effort at other times than in the waning weeks of the year: We can share some of our bounty with those less fortunate than ourselves.

I'm not talking about writing a check to a charity that spends almost as much on expenses as they do for the people they’re supposed to help. Now is the time when we can do something that genuinely touches people in need. In my opinion, two of the easiest choices available at this time of year are giving food to hungry people and donating to the Salvation Army.

No, this isn’t a rah-rah fund-raising plea, just my musings on the fact that it feels great to drop food into those big grocery-store barrels or stuff a dollar into the ubiquitous red pots--in spite of all the jokes about the incessant bell ringing. In fact, I can't fight the urge; I have to share an experience that made me smile the first holiday season after our move to Arizona.

Sitting in our car on a Saturday after Thanksgiving, I noticed a man chatting for several minutes with the lady tending the red pot in front of the grocery store. As she talked, she never missed a beat with those bells. Instead of the single-clapper school bell of many Salvation Army volunteers, she fulfilled her spiritual duty by shaking a ribbon sprinkled with jingle bells, reminding me of sleighs and reindeer. As she chatted, her hand never stopped its rhythmic movement, up and down, up and down, while her arm barely stirred.

I first thought she'll be plagued with carpal tunnel syndrome by the end of the year. Then I had a truly wicked idea: I wonder if any of the generous people who spend December standing outside in all kinds of weather ever go stark raving mad from the sound of their own bells!

When I dropped my token into the pot, the bell ringer gave me a tiny card with uplifting Bible quotes, since their Christian faith drives these dedicated people. But the simple statement on the back touched me most deeply. Next to an artistic rendition of the familiar red Salvation Army pot and silver bell are the words: "Need Knows No Season." That’s true for hunger as well.

When we lived in Texas in the ‘80s, Houston grocery stores never put away the big red barrels, making it easy for shoppers to drop in a can of veggies or a bag of pasta all year round. But when I moved to Cumming, GA, in 1991, I was shocked to discover that this wasn’t the policy in other areas, even in stores owned by the same company.

Sadly, stores in most places collect food from shoppers one or two seasons a year. The rest of the time, food banks scramble to keep their shelves filled. Most people seem to forget that even poor people need more to eat than turkey and trimmings once a year.

When I mentioned this to a grocery manager in Georgia, he wasn’t too interested in the subject. "That's the way it is," he said. But how difficult is it for stores to do the right thing? If they kept the barrels out after the dawn of the new year, instead of stowing them away until the next holiday season, we could all practice more of the true spirit of giving that this season is supposed to be about. I'm sure the people at food banks would make sure all the extra food they received made it to people in need.

To give the devil his due, that store manager did tell me the "reason" he considered food barrels a "problem." He didn't like dealing with them even during the holidays because some people threw trash in them, instead of nonperishable items for the local food bank.

Well, bah humbug! It does take effort to do the job right, but it's not an insurmountable problem. Many barrels I've seen aren’t labeled as collection bins for a food bank; they’re just huge, often drab, metal cans. This explains why people mistake them for something other than a means to help their neighbors in need.

If that's the case, then why don't store employees or food bank volunteers mark the barrels appropriately? If collection bins at every store were painted bright red and stickers, visible from every angle, bore the names of the food banks where contributions are sent, then people wouldn’t mistake them for trash bins and they’d donate more food for poor people in the community.

Another problem is the location of barrels. I've seen them sitting outside stores, making them prime targets for pilfering. Some were next to courtesy booths, so they were obvious only to people with business there. Placing them between cash registers and store shelves, where people have to go around them to get to the registers, doesn't help as much as managers think. By the time customers finish checking out, they're thinking about getting home, instead of going back--and into the path of other shoppers--to drop something into the barrels.

The best place, in my experience, is just inside the doors where people enter and leave the stores. When barrels are placed so prominently, especially if they're brightly decorated so shoppers can really see them, people are more likely to remember to add something to their list before they pick up their own provisions, and they can drop items into the barrels on their way out of the stores.

I didn't come up with these ideas myself. Of all the examples I’ve observed over the years, this was the best of the lot. I can tell you that at least one store in Texas got everything right. I'm just smart enough to recognize a good idea when I steal it! And I'm not bashful about passing it along.

In that spirit, I offer this gift to those who like what I’ve written here: Please feel free to make a copy of this column and take it to the manager of your favorite grocery store. Ask them why the store doesn't keep a food barrel displayed, in a prominent and convenient location, all year round. And pass along my suggestion about decorating it so it’ll never be mistaken for anything other than what it is: a means for more of us to do our little bit to help our fellow human beings in need, as the Quakers say, "whenever the spirit moves us."

I wish that the season be joyful, whether you honor it through Hanukkah, Christmas, or Kwanzaa, and I hope you have a truly happy new year indeed.

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