In addition to the general calls for help that food banks issue every Christmas season, the December charitable calendar is chockablock with targeted food drives collecting gluten-free staples, kosher products and pet food. But the stigma that clings to providing alcohol to the poor has prevented do-gooders from mounting any campaigns for holiday wine donations.
Admittedly, the idea of distributing bubbly for New Year's Eve sounds awfully frivolous in the face of a growing hunger crisis: As I called around to report this post, I had to clarify I wasn't working on a satire. But sparkling wine on New Year's Eve has the same symbolic value as toys on Christmas, a ritual that's fiercely supported by non-profits nationwide. Like Xbox 360s and Barbie dolls, toasting the New Year is a signifier of normalcy, and a reminder that there's more to life than applying for jobs and haggling with insurance companies.
"I'm not aware of any such programs on the winery side," Ryan Pennington, spokesman for the Washington State Wine Commission, said when I asked him about the current state of spirited philanthropy. "(It's) a really interesting point. Wine for the 99 percent!"
The social service sphere has been skeptical of alcohol at least since the Progressive Era, when the same reformers who fought for public education, housing safety and improved nutrition railed against the evils of Demon Rum. In 1903, Jane Adams, founder of Hull House, pinned the cycle of poverty on junk food and strong drink:
"It is not going too far to say that many families continue (to be) poor largely because of over-eating," Adams said. "The gorging with unwholesome stuffs dulls the mind and deadens the energies. And gluttonous eating often goes hand in hand with gluttonous drinking."
Homelessness and alcohol abuse frequently overlap: Two-thirds of homeless people struggle with alcohol, drugs or mental illness, according to the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients. Most service providers would surely agree it would be inexcusably destructive to give a bottle of wine to an alcoholic.
But the stereotypical stumbling hobo no longer represents the average food bank client. The recession has left many hard-working, everyday families struggling to pay their grocery bills. And those families -- who'd no doubt prefer a party to paternalism -- could probably use a bottled dose of holiday cheer.
Alcohol sales have remained remarkably constant as the economy has faltered, suggesting many Americans will adjust their budgets to avoid giving up after-work beers or Champagne on New Year's Eve. But in a survey released this month by American Express, 40 percent of respondents revealed they plan to respond to the recession by spending less on alcohol.
Still, big-hearted donors who'd like to help hard-up families celebrate this weekend's holiday in proper style may have trouble finding a charity willing to facilitate a booze donation. Rick Jump, executive director of the White Center Food Bank, says his agency has no plans to start distributing alcohol. "We're already a very popular food bank," he says.
"If it shows up here, it goes straight to the staff," he adds. "So we will take it."