What I’ve Learned from Handing Out Roughly 4,000 Muffins to Homeless People
National Muffin Day is coming up on Sunday, January 29th. Because recent studies have shown that the average blog reader does not read “below the fold,” I’m skipping to the punch line up front:
For every person who bakes muffins and hands them out to hungry people on Sunday January 29th (or Saturday the 28th), takes a picture, and posts it on Instagram or Twitter with the hashtag #givemuffins, I will donate $10 to Project Homeless Connect, and my law firm Smithline PC will match the donation. See https://www.facebook.com/events/363503940676059/ and https://nationalmuffinday.splashthat.com/ for more information. And of course check out my Medium story from last year that explains why we do what we do: https://medium.com/@jacobkaufman/why-help-the-homeless-on-national-muffin-day-a401c2ba9992#.u9yoq85sm.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on my past three years as a part-time baker-for-good. Nearly every week during those years, usually on Sunday but sometimes on Tuesday, I’ve spent an hour or two in the kitchen chopping, mixing, and stirring muffin ingredients, in order to hand-deliver two dozen delicious muffins to hungry folks on my way to work the next day. I estimate that I’ve handed out roughly 4000 muffins since I started my weekly muffin runs, and between the ensuing 4000 smiles and 4000 thank-yous, I’ve learned a thing or two…or eight. Here are the most memorable lessons I’ve absorbed through handing out muffins:
1. Helping people feels really, really good. I cannot stress this enough, but don’t believe me, trust science on this one. When you give something to another person in need, this action stimulates the midbrain ventral tegmental area (which is also lit up by food, sex, drugs, and money) and the subgenual area (which is also triggered when you see a baby or your lover). Further, when you commit altruistic acts, your brain releases dopamine and you get a natural high. “Helper’s high” is a real thing, and I can promise you that it’s better than any drug. Not that I’d know.
2. One of the worst parts about being homeless is feeling invisible. Have you ever needed to ask a stranger for help? Maybe your car battery ran out and you needed a jump, or you needed a quarter to make a phone call (or the modern equivalent, you needed to borrow somebody’s cell phone). Imagine if every single person you asked for assistance looked the other direction and pretended they didn’t hear you, or diverted their path in an awkward direction to avoid stepping within ten feet of you. That’s what it often feels like to be homeless, and “people pretend they don’t see me” is one of the top complaints I hear from speaking with my muffin recipients.
Giving muffins to homeless people lets them know that they are not invisible. When a human being who has formerly felt ignored suddenly realizes that there are compassionate folks out there who care for her, there’s a significant chance that she’ll smile, triggering that natural high in the giver mentioned in item 1 above.
3. Some homeless people have iPhones, and that’s okay. When I first started handing out muffins, I had a rule where if I saw somebody on their phone texting, I would not give him a muffin. The rationale was that “if he can afford a phone, surely he can afford food, so he doesn’t need anything from me.” After several months of adhering to this rule, I got off my lazy ass and educated myself, and learned two important things: (1) homeless people are not necessarily spending all of their money on cell phones — they often get older, cheaper models or receive phones as gifts, and have less-expensive data plans, and (2) more importantly, cell phones are extremely important to homeless people. In our modern world, cell phones are virtually necessary for receiving needed services (including shelters) and medical attention, finding work, and connecting with friends and family. If a homeless person has a phone, that doesn’t mean he’s “spoiled,” that means he’s trying to survive. It most certainly is not a reason to deny him a muffin.
4. Certain dietary restrictions are common among homeless people. Two immediately come to mind:
A. Many homeless people cannot eat poppy seeds. If you’ve watched Seinfeld, you can probably guess the reason. Poppy seeds show up as heroin in drug tests, and many homeless people are in housing or programs where drug testing is mandatory. So try leaving the poppy seeds out of those lemon muffins — trust me, they don’t really add much flavor in the first place; they just stick in your teeth and cause that awkward “do I tell her?” situation with everybody you talk to that day.
B. Many homeless people cannot eat nuts. Not because of allergies (although that might be the case for certain people), but because they don’t have good teeth. The first time I made a batch of muffins with nuts (cranberry pecan), I got so many rejections for this reason that the next week I made a dozen with and a dozen without nuts, and asked each recipient which type she preferred. Eventually I approached a trans woman, and when I asked whether she wanted her muffins with or without, she placed a hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eyes, and said, “honey, I always want nuts.”
Despite that, I’d recommend leaving the nuts out of your muffins this year, just to be safe.
5. There are a lot of homeless people, far more than you usually see. The first time I tried handing out muffins on the way to work, I struggled to find 12 recipients, now I’ve usually handed out 24 muffins before I get halfway to my office. While the amount of homeless people in San Francisco has remained relatively static in the past three years (roughly 6500 in a city of just over 800,000 people), once I made the commitment to actively seek them out, I realized that every day before that I was subconsciously putting on blinders (see item #2 above). Handing out muffins is a great way to un-distort your reality; only when you are trying to help people do you see how many people need your help.
6. Homeless people are similar to all other people in that they appreciate home-baked goods made from scratch. The number one question I get asked when I hand out muffin is, “can I have another one?” But the number two question is “did you make these yourself?” When I reply in the affirmative, the question asker’s face will inevitably light up and his appreciation will increase by a factor of at least 2.5. While buying food for homeless people is wonderful and a great way to be kind when you’re on the run, homeless people, like you, appreciate it when somebody makes the effort to bake something from scratch.
If you need any recipes, just ask.
7. Baking and distributing muffins is more fun when you do it with somebody else. Yes, I do sometimes bake muffins by myself, while listening to “Everybody Hurts” on repeat so that the muffin batter becomes salty with my tears. But I much prefer when there’s somebody in the kitchen baking muffins with me, especially if that somebody chops the fruit and washes the dishes. It’s also fun to hand out muffins with another person — I’ve found that nearly every time I’ve done this, we’ve ended up getting into a deep and enlightening conversation about homelessness, income inequality, the state of the world, and life, the universe, and everything.
So come National Muffin Day, grab a friend, significant other, brother, sister, parent, child, or just some stranger you met on Bumble, and have them join you in the kitchen and on the road!
8. Giving out muffins to people in need is actually helpful. I will admit that there have been times when I have doubted the effectiveness of handing out sugary baked goods as a means of helping homeless people. What homeless people really need most are homes, and you can’t live in a muffin. I’ve been told by naysayers (including a few homeless folks) that giving out muffins is a waste of time, and that I’m an asshole if I think I’m helping anybody by doing so.
But I’ve been told by exponentially more homeless people that they’re grateful for what I’m doing. Further, through my weekly muffin runs, I’ve gained an awareness of the homeless situation in San Francisco that I definitely did not have before, and this has led me to channel many of my charitable donations towards organizations like Project Homeless Connect that work wonders for the homeless community.
Don’t be deterred by the thought that muffins are too small of an act. If you make your muffins with heart, and they taste good, then I promise you that (a) the recipients will be appreciative, grateful, and all-around stoked and (b) your understanding of the plight of the homeless will shift and you will become (even) more committed to being a compassionate person. That’s a guarantee from the Muffin Man for you.
Also, baking and giving out muffins is hella fun.
So bake and give out muffins on National Muffin Day, Sunday January 29th. Don’t forget to use the hashtag #givemuffins — I look forward to seeing your photos!