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Thinking on donating food to a city-run homeless shelter? If you’re in New York City, forget it.

It seems Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a man on a mission: to improve the nutrition of all New Yorkers. According to an article in the New York Post, because food donated to city-run shelters cannot be policed for nutritional specifics such as salt, fat content, calorie content, fiber minimum and condiment recommendations (condiment recommendations?!), the city is blocking food donations to all government-run facilities that serve the city’s homeless.

A great number of faith-based organizations regularly donate large amounts of food to the city’s shelters. Because the donated food reflects the cultural and religious diversity of the donating organizations, the food comes in many rich and varied forms that have always been appreciated by the recipients.

But in a mark of bureaucratic brilliance, New York City is actively DIScouraging its citizens from being charitable, saying their food isn’t good enough to share with the hungry through its shelters. With the downturn in the economy, there are a lot more people who are homeless or destitute … which makes it all the more suspicious when the city – already on a tight budget – refuses to accept food donations to supplement what taxpayers are already providing.

So I must ask, WHY? Why would the city harm the very people it purports to help? To the best of my knowledge, the hungry had no complaints about the nutritional quality of the food they were given.

To learn more, I spoke to the Post article’s author, Jeff Stier, senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research. Mr. Stier informed me the city claims this policy has been in place for a long time but had never been enforced. Donated food safety has always been a legitimate matter; but there wasn’t a problem until the mayor put these nutritional guidelines in place. In other words, the issue behind the sudden enforcement isn’t food safety, it’s nutritional concerns.

So generous New Yorkers are stepping up to the plate and offering to make healthy donations, food that meets Bloomberg’s nutritional requirements. Nope, not good enough. The city-run food shelters are still forced to turn these donations away.

Make no mistake, said Mr. Stier – the people running these food shelters are furious about the policy. They want the donations. Their job is to feed the hungry, after all; and they believe it is heartless (to both donors and recipients) to turn away food. They want Bloomberg’s policy reversed.

“It’s essentially a turf battle,” said Mr. Stier. “The mayor’s view is that feeding the homeless is the government’s job, and he doesn’t want the private sector interfering.”

Private food shelters are not affected by this policy, and Mr. Stier did not know if these private organizations have had an uptick in food donations. But there has been broad outrage among New York’s homeless advocates. “The issue is about whether the government should be solely in charge,” said Mr. Stier. “The city government doesn’t want the private sector to play a bigger role.”

What it comes down to is control. Mr. Stier paraphrased Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond’s attitude: “We want to control what these people eat, and we don’t need your help.”

There are endless examples of individuals or communities responding efficiently to a crisis in everything from fixing storm-damaged bridges to setting up firefighter support services in wildfire-torn areas. But it’s well-documented that when FEMA or other government branches arrive, they typically (and highhandedly) order everyone else to clear out. They’re the only ones allowed to help.

And this sets a verrryyyy dangerous precedent. If the government is seen as the font of all goodness, mercy and charity – and private individuals are therefore nutritionally ignorant at best and tightfisted at worst – then the government can garner more votes and more power.

On the surface, government-sponsored charity seems so … good. Supporters argue that the government has more money and therefore can care for more people than private charities ever could. But these supporters are ignoring the unintended consequence: dependency.

Governments thrive on dependent people because this creates a built-in block of voters. And it is in the government’s best interest to make that block as large as possible. That’s why, from the local to the national level, people are encouraged to take part in WIC, AFDC, free breakfast/lunch programs at school, etc. Everywhere we turn, it seems, we are offered “free” goodies from a benevolent and charitable government that only wants to help.

But metaphorically all governments do – all they really can do – is give people fish. They never teach them to fish. So people come back day after day, month after month, year after year, for more and more. They are never taught to dig up worms and use a fishing pole to feed themselves. After a while the recipients argue they shouldn’t have to catch their own fish. It’s their right to get free fish … at taxpayer expense. And they’ll vote for whoever promises them free fish forever.

I expressed my concern to Mr. Stier that what starts in New York City often spreads to other progressive enclaves, and ultimately becomes national policy. He agreed. “The mayor has long prided himself on setting what he calls ‘cutting-edge policy’ and pushing the envelope,” said Mr. Stier, “whether it’s a ban on trans-fat, a reduction on salt, or bans on outdoor smoking. Bloomberg prides himself that city policies he instigates will help develop policies across the country. He wants to use the city as the model.”

It was C.S. Lewis who said it best: “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their consciences.”

The mayor of New York City probably sleeps well at night; his conscience clear. But he does so at the expense of one fundamental truth: charity begins at home – not at city hall.

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