Last night on Facebook, I read something that rubbed me the wrong way. A peer, a woman I worked with for two months, posted a conversation she and her mother had had after seeing a yoga mat tucked into a Toys for Tots donation box. “That’s not a Toy for Tots!” she cleverly quipped, “It’s a Present for the Privileged.” I wasn’t sure how to articulate it at the time, but it bothered me, so I passive-aggressively posted a link to a blog that had gone viral about a woman finding quinoa in the food donation box at a school where well-heeled children attended. The blog, of course, was about not judging “those people” who receive food donations or welfare, in the face of blatantly prejudiced concerns about welfare moms toting iphone 6s while gaming the system for free WIC benefits and food stamps. The author had unexpectedly found herself in a position of using a food pantry previously, she writes, and far be it for us to assume who is at the other end of our donations. I didn’t expect my former colleague to see herself in that story, but it set my brain on fire.
During the two months we worked side by side at a state-funded program for full-day pre-kindergarten for needy families, and children with developmental delays, she had lamented, while justifying why a professional woman holding a master’s degree was still living with her parents, that in this economy, one could have a car, or an apartment, but not both. It’s insulting not only because I was doing both at the time, but more so because the families we worked with, most of whom were single-parent and/or immigrant families, were struggling without the benefit of native English proficiency, white privilege, or higher education that she and I both enjoy.
Then there’s her assumption itself, that a yoga mat is a privileged item, that yoga is a bourgeois pursuit, that a $10 yoga mat is an inappropriate gift item for a child in need. What, pray tell, would one rather choose for a 10- or 12-year-old girl? A piece of mass-produced commercialized plastic drek that will last no longer than Christmas morning? Whereas a yoga mat needs no batteries, no assembly, has no directions, and no limitations. Boys, girls, young and old. And, contrary to the assertion of another Facebook commenter, it can provide more than just a “clean surface to play on” over the presumed squalor of the recipient family’s overcrowded tenement. My own kids, not even three, but already in the throes of pretended play, have commandeered my dormant yoga mats, and set them up as roadways for their cars, towels for their “beach” excursions, and blankets to hide in. A pair of pointe shoes or a riding helmet might be a White Elephant for an impoverished child, but a quick trip to the library would yield a DVD or a book of yoga poses to imitate.
Many years ago, around Christmas time, my mom read a “letter to Santa” in the local paper, written by a little girl whose family was in need. My siblings and I spent our first night of Hanukkah wrapping matchbox cars, Barbies, stuffed animals, winter coats, and an artificial Christmas tree. My mom played elf and delivered it all to the little girl’s school. When we were talking about our first nights of Hanukkah at confirmation class the next day, I shared the warm, fuzzy feeling I had gotten from our act of charity. Cynically, one of my classmates posited that it had been a hoax designed to garner sympathy and free stuff.
Is my classmate the same kind of person who thinks a yoga mat is a trapping of the well-to-do, that charity should be practiced with a distinct separation between the stuff we use, and the stuff they’re allowed to receive as gifts?
The social justice club at my school is collecting canned/boxed foods and free turkey certificates so that local aid organizations can give traditional thanksgiving meals to the hungry. What started as an effort by a small group of kids resulted in a school-wide donation of 30 boxes of canned food and 10 free turkey certificates. Due to the need for the stuff to be shelf-stable, most of the donations are the usual food pantry staples: mushy canned yams, canned corn, limp green beans, jellied cranberry sauce (with the ripples from the can), and boxes of instant mashed potatoes. I don’t know of another way to collect and distribute food donations, but the result is that those have become poor people food. Those are the go-to donations. Alongside my jar of cranberries from Trader Joe’s in the donation box was the 30-cent can of corn niblets I found at Giant.
The canned-corn-and-instant-potato-flakes stereotype speaks to the larger issue of access to fresh fruits and vegetables that is often lacking in “food deserts”. Fresh food costs more, has to be stored differently, expires faster, and requires more time to prepare. But does that mean hungry people don’t deserve quinoa or yoga mats? If we really want our charity to be meaningful, we should choose things we ourselves would use. There’s a significant difference between donating canned caviar, and buying an extra jar of the same spaghetti sauce your family uses when it’s 2/$5.
When we used to collect coats, hats, and mittens for a preschool service project, we would tell the kids it was for “friends we haven’t met yet” to make charity accessible to a 3-year-old brain. That’s all “those people” are — they’re just friends we haven’t met yet. I’d buy my friend a yoga mat, wouldn’t you?