As I approached the door of our small grocery store in Fiddlestix (pop. 4756), a little old lady stopped me and asked sweetly, “Excuse me, sir, but would you please consider helping our food pantry today?”
She was about the size of a house sparrow and looked like everyone’s grandmother. She was one of a team of grannies who were working the trickle of shoppers entering the store with shopping lists in hand.
She handed me a florescent orange sheet of paper and explained, “We’re here for the food pantry co-op. Here on this side is a list of the churches we represent, and here on the back is a list of the items our pantry really needs this week. If you could find it in your heart to pick up one or two of these items and drop them in the cart on your way out, we’d be very grateful. Thank you and God bless.”
I glanced up as she pointed to a couple of shopping carts on the sidewalk, half-filled with jars, boxes, and cans of food. “Thank you,” I said, and scanned her list as I went shopping. It was two rows of items – food on the left column and household goods on the right column. I picked up a jar of peanut butter and a tube of toothpaste as I cruised the aisles, and 30 minutes later I was walking out the door, dropping my donations into the now-full carts. The grannies smiled sweetly and thanked me as I walked away.
Driving home, I considered that what I just had experienced was brilliant.
1. What these three grannies were doing to collect food had near-zero cost: a few dozen sheets of colored paper.
2. Their appeal was as clear as a bell: this is who we are, this is what we need, and here is how you can help right now.
3. It was easy for anyone to donate: I buy something along with the rest of my groceries and donate it right there on the spot as I leave.
4. It was novel and transparent: people seldom ask for food and it avoids asking for money, which often turns people off.
5. Awareness: as I drop my jar of peanut butter into the cart, I think about how some hungry person will eat it later. I’m not thinking “money to a charity”, but rather “food for a hungry kid”. It is a complete paradigm shift, which humanizes the entire act.
These three grannies had figured out what they were capable of doing with what they had in the little town of Fiddlestix, and they had managed to collect two carts of food in a couple of hours. They also managed to witness to their community the need for food in their neighborhood, as well as model behavior that says we all can help the hungry.
They also did one other thing – they made themselves visible again. Many elderly adults become increasingly invisible in our society – the recede from our vision. Upon retirement, they recede from the business world and recede from the consumerist society. If you are not a producer or a consumer in our so-called secular world, you are considered worthless and thereby rendered invisible. But by their efforts and creativity, these elderly women were doing something of great value besides feeding the hungry: there were making themselves (and by proxy other elderly) visible again, bucking the secular notions about human worth. And they did all these things simply by asking for a jar, or a box, or a can, of food.
See what I mean? Brilliant.