Ask the Ethicist: Giving food to the homeless

Q: “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?”

A: This was a question posted for open debate on Dr. Marion Nestle’s blog ( There are several moral considerations that stand out in such a question: the calorie per dollar value of the food choice, the health quality of the food choice, and the maximizing nature of the coupon option.

The current concern about healthy food choices in western countries makes sense. We have an abundance of calories available everywhere. Third-world visitors to Canada must stand in awe – and possibly a tinge of disgust – when they stand on any busy street corner and count the number of places that dispense food. Businesses which don’t focus on food sales now dedicate a great deal of their total retail space to food. Even libraries, long the bastion of “no food or drink” now feature coffees and baked goods. It is also obvious to most of us that the quality of these foods is often suspicious, if not obviously unhealthy.

Snack goods with high quantities of saturated fat, sodium and sugar are commonplace, while healthy options are harder to find or prohibitively expensive. So for those of us with plenty to eat, even those who enjoy excessive calorie intake, being more selective is a wise choice.

For those who suffer from an insufficient calorie intake due to poverty, the decision-making matrix is remarkably different. People in this bracket could be suffering from a host of nutritional deficiencies. The most fundamental requirement of people in this condition is sufficient intake of macronutrients (proteins, fats and carbohydrates) and secondarily their vitamin and mineral intake. It seems paradoxical, but there are numerous studies out there which show that eating unhealthily is cheaper than eating healthily, thus the poor in North America can be achieving a suitable calorie intake, but with such poor nutritional content that they begin to suffer other health ailments related to obesity.

The friend in this scenario suggests that coupons for hamburgers are more convenient to transport, and represent a greater number of calories than do “healthy options” such as granola bars and fruit. This is a reasonable argument, driven by the primary concerns about the most basic nutrition of the poor – sufficient calories to survive. It seems that an occasional hamburger is not harmful to anyone, and if I am literally starving, it seems to do much more good than harm.

At one angle, it seems to be a maximally efficient choice of food. On the other, it seems to be a sub-maximal choice in that it doesn’t address the vitamin and mineral deficits as effectively as healthy food might. Also, in the event that a pan-handler only receives coupons for hamburgers, it could constitute nearly 100 per cent of his or her caloric intake, thus posing a host of new problems.
All in all, it seems to be misguided to be concerned about the quality of a person’s food if in fact they are dangerously underfed. Once we can address the question of hunger, we can address the issue of other dietary diseases.