Hamburgers for the Homeless: The Ethics of Buying People Food

Even if you never eat Big Macs or McNuggets, is buying McDonald's for a panhandler the right thing to do?

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My post of several days ago on the ethics of childhood obesity interventions elicited this interesting question from Megan:

I am curious as to what your thoughts are on individuals giving food to the homeless.

I used to give them a granola bar or a piece of fruit (whatever I happened to have in my lunch), but a friend of mine said she gives McDonald's coupons for a free hamburger because she can carry the coupons with her more easily than a box of granola bars or a bag of apples.

Since I, myself, do not eat McDonald's I find it hard to give anyone else McDonald's food.  However, my friend argues that it's a caloric dense meal and that makes it better than my one apple. Any suggestions?

I'd like to see readers responses to this. Giving food to the poor can solve the immediate problem, but is not sustainable in the long term and diverts attention from policy solutions to hunger problems (for a clear explanation of this dilemma, I highly recommend taking a look at Janet Poppendieck's Sweet Charity).

But the homeless are a special case. In my NYU neighborhood, many of us try to take care of a clearly deranged but charming homeless man who is very precise about what he asks for and will accept. He becomes outraged if offered food. He occasionally asks for a dollar and will not accept one penny more.

But other homeless people might be grateful for a McDonald's handout.

Is it ethical to give food to the homeless that you would not eat yourself? Is it ethical not to give food to the homeless? How can you do the most good in this situation?

Weigh in, please.


This post also appears on Food Politics.
Image: bee-side(s)/flickr

Presented by

Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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