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I was in a conversation recently with a local pastor who shared with me that some of the volunteers who operate their food pantry feel as though they are being taken advantage of by some of the food recipients.

His comment is not foreign to those of us who work in hunger relief. In fact, not a presentation goes by without someone asking how we determine the eligibility of the people who receive food assistance at the Redwood Empire Food Bank in Sonoma County.

My experience has led me to the conclusion that there is no response to this concern that is completely satisfying to everyone. Instead, each of us must find the balance point of need and help.

People come at the notion of providing help to others from many directions. Some people have a bootstrap point of view, holding strong to the idea that they personally never needed help, and therefore nobody else should. On the other end of the continuum are people who are led by their compassion for others, asking no questions and passing no judgment.

To little surprise, as a food banker, my values are closer to the latter than the former. Having provided food assistance to more than 1 million people during the past 15 years, my work has become anchored with two strong values.

First, to require people to sink to a certain level of desperation before we help them is not a practice our society should embrace.

And, second, people are in need because of decisions they have made intentionally or for circumstances beyond their control. In either case, hunger cannot be the price they pay.

My conversation with the pastor and recent headlines about a looming drought got me thinking about the routine activity of loading sandbags in preparation for winter rainstorms.

In my hometown, the city provides the community with a pile of sand, burlap bags and a shovel to use during the winter months. Although there is no need to fill bags with sand this winter, many of us find ourselves filling economic sandbags in light of the worsening economy. Many of us are deeply concerned about the financial storm moving our way, wondering whether our economic sandbags will protect us.

Nearly everyone I know has been impacted by what is happening in the economy. I have a friend who has been laid off from his job. The child of a couple I know is graduating from college with tremendous expectations and dreams, but little hope and a huge student loan debt. A couple I know recently had their second child, but even more recently they were both laid off from their jobs. Another friend, who worked for the same employer for 25 years, bought a home in Sebastopol, and commuted to San Francisco, received a pink slip this week.

And then there?s everyone else, who just have an uneasy, if not queasy feeling about what?s in store for their future.

These times draw our attention to the confluence of decisions made and circumstances beyond our control. Due to the lack of income, we begin asking ourselves whether we should have spent money on college, had a second child or bought our home.

Depending on your proclivity to be a bootstrapper or a compassionista, you might have a different answer to these questions. I think we should all agree that regardless of the path that leads us to the community sand pile, we need to ensure that there are enough sandbags to fend off the storm ? whether it is rain, economic or hunger.

David Goodman is executive director of the Redwood Empire Food Bank in Sonoma County.