Free Money Day? How about Free Veggie Day?

Serendipity always seems to lead to the best insights. Last week I got a press release in my email about “Free Money Day,” The Post Growth Institute’s annual event in which the organization encourages people to give away a couple of “bank notes,” no strings attached, with a note along the lines of ‘Take Two and Pass One On.’ It’s a clever idea—with the goal of making people rethink the capitalist economy, unending economic growth, the role of money, and the “benefits of economies based on sharing.”

I then read a story about volunteers distributing a 1,400 boxes of vegetables to residents in the North End—a neighborhood of Connecticut’s capital, Hartford—which has a high rate of poverty and unemployment. As the story describes, in an area where there is no grocery store, and residents walk to schools to see if they are still giving out school lunches, these boxes of “fresh carrots, potatoes, onions, zucchini, cabbages, and apples” were enthusiastically welcomed.

This also comes after looking through, and showing my son, this painful New York Times photo essay of Americans suffering from food insecurity. These are not pictures of developing world food insecurity, where there is literally nothing to eat, but of “developed” (or more accurately overdeveloped) countries where food, bought, gathered, or received (such as from churches and food pantries) is calorie-dense but nutritionally empty and health-destroying rather than nourishing. The images included unsurprising photos like children eating Cheetos, but also ones that show how resourceful the food insecure can be, like a mother making a meal out of several single serving plastic containers of taco meat from their school lunch program. They’re surviving, but becoming sicker as time goes on.

That’s why, after seeing those photos, and the Free Money and the Free Veggie articles, it really felt like they belong together. Not everyone got a box of vegetables. Some neighbors might have been too proud, or didn’t feel they could take one because they have a job, or were at work. But they too might not be eating enough vegetables (and considering their lack of access due to so many areas in the US being “food deserts” probably aren’t).

Is it possible to take the clever idea of Free Money Day, especially the part that embeds sharing directly in the mission, and make it into a “Free Veggie Day” (or even better, apply it to all food charity)? So that with each box given, volunteers say (or include a note), ‘Please invite a neighbor to share a veggie-filled meal with you,’ or ‘Bring by a bowl of whatever delicious meal you cook to a neighbor in need’ or more simply, “Cook Something Nutritious. Share Something Delicious.” What would that do?

Sowing the Seed of Free Veggie Day

While this program in Hartford was supported by local organizations and the USDA, could there also be ways to work with local growers? The last time I went to pick apples (a year or two ago) there were so many apples rotting on the trees (and on the ground). Could Gaians (or anyone interested) work with farmers to collect some of that fruit that’s going to be lost (or the overabundance of zucchinis and other veggies that don’t keep at the peak of the summer season) and share it with their communities? Surely, it’s one thing if it’s the farmer who has to do the picking and distributing, it’s another if someone will do it for them (at least in Pick Your Own orchards), promote their good will, share that produce with those in need (who are probably not their customers), and perhaps even help them get a tax write-off for veggies donated. Of course it’d be even better if the USDA paid for those vegetables, but navigating that complexity is beyond this reflection!

That’s not to say that Free Money Day isn’t valuable or needs to change. It is a clever bit of street theater, shocking people by approaching them and handing them money—instead of asking for it—and encouraging the sharing of a resource we are taught and tend to hoard. But perhaps a hybridization of handing out bank notes and handing out veggie boxes would make both of these efforts better—like Broccolini. Distributing a resource with true value (nutritious food that is scarce) and doing so in a way that encourages deepened community connections (through meal sharing) could be a subtle way to make communities healthier—both physically and psychologically—and thus make them more resilient and able to fight for a more just and sustainable future for themselves and for the world.

As this image shows, you can really turn expectations upside down. How many of us avoid looking at people with signs when we’re in our cars, knowing they’ll ask us for money if they catch our eye? Wouldn’t you be surprised if you actually saw that sign! (Image from Post Growth Institute)

Weeding out Systemic Injustice

A final note: distributing veggies is not enough, of course. There is systemic injustice and exploitation that have led to entire neighborhoods being underserved. As Vu Le noted in a recent essay, and others before him (like this book Sweet Charity?) nonprofits are, to some degree, part of the problem—passing out food aid, in this case, instead of working on systemic change, including fixing unfair wealth distribution and broken social safety nets. And thus, the nonprofit sector must be reformed to more effectively push for systemic transformation while providing immediate relief. So, if that’s something you are interested in, Le is moderating a Town Hall September 21st at 2pm Eastern as well as a second policy-focused Town Hall on October 5th at 2pm Eastern. As Le and others have discussed at length, there are simple improvements, like increasing minimum annual distributions from foundations, which could play an immediate role in increasing the scope and strength of the sector. Join if you can!

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