Suspended coffee post on Starbucks FB page 28March2013Suddenly, the idea of a “Suspended Coffee” is a huge viral hit on various social networking  sites.  The gist of it is that a customer orders more coffees than he or she intends to actually consume.  The extras are considered “suspended.”  The barista can gift the suspended coffees to a customer in need.

Attached is a screen cap from the official Starbucks Facebook page.  People are talking about “Suspended Coffees.”  On, there are numerous threads about “suspended coffees.”  You can take a look at threads on “suspended coffees” here, here, here, and here.  And there are plenty more, if you use the search box.

Should Starbucks get involved with the Suspended Coffee movement? My answer is “no.”

Trust me, the topic of feeding America’s poor and hungry is one that I take great interest in.  I’m going to give you my analysis and commentary  as best I can.  Feel free to disagree.

Problems with the idea of a “suspended coffee”:

  • In real life, people don’t follow neat scripts.  All the examples on the internet have quaint stories of a more prosperous person buying the “suspended” meal, and a poorer person asking for it.  I have to wonder if the people creating these nice stories have ever met any inner-city poor who are truly very hungry and sleeping on the streets.  First off, they don’t follow scripts.  They don’t know the right thing to ask for in nice language.  And I hate to admit it, but some of the very hungry who are absolutely deserving a suspended beverage are also the ones who appear at a Starbucks intoxicated and going from person to person begging for money.  I have had it happen to me in downtown Seattle.  I know this is not a nice clean picture that we like to imagine.  But it could be reality.
  • Baristas have plenty to do.  Asking them to be the tally-keepers of suspended coffees might not work:  I recognize that the examples I give will make some bristle.  But in all honesty, I can see the possibility that a store will have a number of suspended coffees, and no one is entering in to take advantage of them.  I can completely see the possibility that some baristas will use those suspended beverages for their favorite regulars, their friends, and however they can.  Yes I know, this too doesn’t fit the perfect script.  But it could be reality.  And Starbucks boasts 70 million customers each week passing through their doors.  This could be a nightmare to keep track off.
  • The very poor and hungry need more than a free latte.  If you’re truly very poor, you need a square meal.  You need a meal program.  You need a food bank.  You may need a shelter.  You probably need bus fare to get to a shelter or meal program.  In some ways, and again this will sound harsh, this idea of the suspended coffee makes a more affluent person feel good for doing very little.

This is important:  There are so many ways to help the hungry!

You can make a difference and help the poor and the hungry!

  • Find a local food bank to donate your money or your time to. I apologize, but all my examples will be Seattle examples – but there are food banks all over the country!  If you are in Seattle, why not volunteer at the Ballard Food Bank or the  University District Food Bank?
  • Find a large hunger relief organization to donate your time or money to.  In Seattle, we’re lucky to have two such organizations.  They are Northwest Harvest and Food Lifeline.  These organizations partner directly with growers, and larger businesses to be able to receive very large scale food donations.  And then with the help of many volunteer hours, the the large donations are repacked and distributed to meal programs and smaller food banks.  Last October, I wrote an article about a number of partners who volunteered at the Houston Food Bank (which appears to be a larger, hunger relief organization).
  • Find a meal program to volunteer at:  In Seattle, seven nights a week, a person can get a meal at Operation Nightwatch.  I will say, having volunteered there several times, that is some of the more difficult volunteering that I have done.  Nightly, this program serves about 150 to 200 of Seattle’s very poorest individuals.  It’s a rough crowd.  You’ll encounter a number of people who are used to sleeping outside.  It’s heartbreaking to have a conversation where you ask where someone is sleeping, and the answer is “by a dumpster.”  Making a meal in an industrial kitchen, with donated food (some of which comes from Food Lifeline), and serving it to people who are noticeably hungry, IS rewarding.  Or, consider donating money to a local meal program or shelter.
  • Make a donation to a larger, national hunger relief organization:  If you really cannot find anything local in your area, you can always make a donation to Feeding America, a very large national hunger relief organization.
  • Carry a $5 Subway card or (some kind of McDonald’s card) on you at all times:  In my work, I professionally interact with a number of social workers.  I thought it was remarkable when a friend (a social worker) told me that she tries to have a $5 Subway gift card on her at all times.  If someone really is in need, at least he or she can be given a small sandwich of their choosing.  Here in downtown Seattle, there are a ton of Subway locations.  If you’re in a city dense with fast food, and filled with poor, consider always carrying a small food gift card on your person.  I have heard of people keeping $5 Starbucks gift cards on them for this purpose.  This puts the momentum to give in your very own hands, instead of transferring that power to someone else.  And at least in downtown Seattle, there is no shortage of very poor with an extended hand, asking for help.  By the way, I think most urban centers have plenty of poor who are down on their luck.  I saw the same thing when I lived in San Francisco from 2001 to 2004.

You can do a lot to get a nourishing meal to someone who is hungry.  And it doesn’t have to be an ad hoc system of hoping the right person will walk into Starbucks at the right time.  You can do better than that.

Coincidentally, when I noticed the  “Suspended Coffee” craze, I had been in the middle of writing an article about Starbucks  Global Month of Service which starts April 1, 2013.  I will be writing about that again soon!  In the meantime, if you are looking for some volunteer opportunities, you can check out the Starbucks Community Service page too.

I hope I have given you some points to consider in response to the viral “Suspended Coffee” movement.  And if you like this article, I hope you’ll consider sharing it in response to those who are championing the “Suspended Coffee Movement.”  I know their hearts are in the right places.  However, what sounds adorable and perfect in a short story, doesn’t always play universally well across the United States.