At our North Waco neighborhood meeting at Mission Waco’s recently purchased building on the corner of North 15th and Colcord Avenue, two lower-income women from just two blocks away pleaded with me: “Please make this building into a neighborhood grocery store. We just walked almost 2.5 miles to the closest grocery store to get healthy, affordable food.”

Ironically, our new building originally was a Safeway Grocery built in 1930. As the economics of the neighborhood changed, businesses moved away and several predatory convenience stores filled the void.

One in every seven U.S. households (14.3 percent) is what we call “food insecure.” They spend 30 percent more for food than their more wealthy counterparts. Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service estimates 23.5 million people live in what we also call “food deserts,” far removed from grocery stores. More than half of these are lower-income families with little access to transportation. They’re often compelled to buy overpriced and unhealthy groceries from area convenience stores. Without affordable healthy foods, obesity and price-gouging follow.

Mission Waco is seriously exploring creating a non-profit neighborhood grocery store so people in our neighborhood can access what most of us who are better off can get without a two-hour bus ride back and forth for groceries. The challenge is complicated since profit for food alone is less than 2 percent in supermarkets and that small margin will not pay even the cost of employees and utilities. A few models of this type of neighborhood grocery store have been created in the United States but they’re usually subsidized by business or grant dollars.

Like most urban non-profits and ministries in Waco, food access is a significant component of our work. Last year alone, Mission Waco fed 35,000 meals to the homeless and lower-income children, youth and adults we serve in our programs. Even with our focus on empowering those thousands who come for tutoring, job training, substance abuse recovery and other kinds of skills development, food often is a part of the immediate need while they are in such training.

Other non-profits expend even more effort providing food to help the poor in our city. Caritas, Shepherd’s Heart, Salvation Army, Meals and Wheels, Pack of Hope, numerous churches and local school districts serving free and reduced meals and providing summer food services collectively provide millions of meals or pounds of food annually. When federal food programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the related program for women, children and infants, are added into the local economy, the expense on food is in the billions.

With so much need in our city in which 28.7 percent live below the Federal Poverty Guideline and in a world where 21,000 children under age 5 die daily from hunger-related problems, appeals for food-related funds and donations are common this time of year. Because Americans become more generous during the holidays, marketing efforts and passionate pleas ramp up. TV ads of starving children in Africa, Nepal, Haiti, Honduras and India confront the viewer through overwhelming photos and statistics. All recognize that the final six weeks of the year are often the “make-it-or-break-it” season that determines if they can meet budgets, keep staff and maintain the critical work of charities that attempt to feed a hungry city and world.

Crisis vs. chronic need

Yet another side of the politics of food has gained momentum the last few years. While it seems less compassionate and even unreasonable to some, the heart of the question is fair: Are free food lines alleviating poverty and long-term hunger locally and globally? Even deeply committed Christian authors of recent books, such as “When Helping Hurts” and “Toxic Charity,” question the logic of many behind our ongoing relief efforts.

“Those with the problem must be a part of the problem,” is the mantra of this growing camp. Change comes when the recipient is offered dignity and responsibility — not from repeated giveaways, which rarely seem to have lasting implications. With the obvious exceptions of sacrificial donations in major disasters, such as an earthquake, fire, famine, flood, drought, hurricane, major mental illness, war or a localized crisis, perhaps the givers themselves become part of the problem when no “real crisis” exists, just chronic need.

No one questions the compassion of the donors, but do the methods employed need some upgraded, strategic thinking? While acknowledging that “taking care of widows and orphans in their distress” (James 1:27) is expected of the followers of Jesus, St. Paul’s challenge was, “if a man doesn’t work, he doesn’t eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Both relief and development have their roles and are necessary. But we all know that continual help can easily lead to co-dependency and irresponsibility.

In our work at Mission Waco/Mission World, we have found over 23 years of ministry among the poor that charging the homeless $2 per day or an hour of chores for shelter stay, offering micro-credit loans of $100 instead of cash to impoverished women in Haiti or even asking parents to pay 20 percent of the cost of donated Christmas toys is not destructive or unethical but dignifying. And nothing is more empowering than a job, especially one with living wages.

While some givers and recipients may adamantly disagree, it seems our role is to surround folks in need with occasional charity but even more encouragement, support systems, mentoring, dignity and love, helping them believe in their own value and abilities. It’s the old proverb of “teaching the man to fish instead of giving him one.” While that path is usually slower and more expensive than the quick fix our culture has historically chosen and while it may not be as satisfying to the donor who enjoys the good feeling of helping the immediate need, the results of more long-term, methodical and targeted help can be significant.

Ultimately the goal is the restoration of those who want to be responsible, want to work and even want to become a mentor and model to others. The safety net must never go away for the poor who are mentally or physically disabled, the children, the sick and the elderly, but perhaps a greater emphasis on work, raising the minimum wage to a living wage and even providing access to healthy and affordable food would reframe and address poverty in our own community.

Season for stepping up

So should you cut back on your food and financial donations to relief agencies? Absolutely not! In fact, we need to step up and give more than ever, since only a small fraction of the community donates to the relief needs of Waco’s poor. There are still huge numbers of impoverished adults and children who for various reasons cannot work or even volunteer but still need food or assistance today. You can even decide to be a donor and volunteer all 12 months of the year instead of during the next global crisis or Thanksgiving and Christmas season.

Yet as we examine our community’s impoverishment, maybe it’s time to also re-think more strategically and give more generously to efforts that offer empowerment. Who will offer more jobs to the low-income youth or adult with little experience or education yet wants the dignity of work? Who will mentor those in generational poverty who are trying to break free from inadequate role models? Who will take a chance on an ex-offender returning to our community but can’t get an interview? Who will step forward and attack predatory lending for those who need a fair loan?

You get the picture. We need you!

Jimmy Dorrell is co-founder and executive director of Mission Waco. He is pastor of Church Under the Bridge and teaches classes at Baylor University and Truett Seminary. He has served on many boards including Teen Pregnancy Prevention Council, Parents as Teachers and Compassion Ministries of Waco. He co-chaired anti-poverty efforts that ultimately led to the creation of Prosper Waco.