From Greed to Giving Back

I love stories of redemption because I believe anyone can choose to begin doing the right thing at any moment in life--and that this choice matters. I also believe that no matter how badly someone has behaved in the past, they can in fact turn a corner and start doing good. Choosing a better path goes a long way toward making up for a wrong path in the past.

Sam Polk seems to be one someone who has turned a corner for the better. He is the founder of Grocerships, a wonderful program that helps the underprivileged transition to a better, more healthful diet. He's also a former hedge fund trader who feels as if he is making amends for his "addiction" to wealth while working on Wall Street. Every form of human behavior seems to be a candidate for addiction now, so I'm not sure about his self-diagnosis, but his remorse over the way his personal values became skewed in pursuit of wealth rings true to me. As he described it, in an Op Ed in the New York Times that thrust him into the public eye for a while, he became compulsively motivated to make more and more money as a trader. When he woke up to how money had taken over his life, he was earning a $3.6 million annual bonus and feeling as if it wasn't nearly enough. He would set himself a target and resolve to leave the trading life once he hit it, but when he did reach it, it never felt like enough. At one point, he had enough money to see him through a decade without working and he felt anxious about needing more.

Although his confessions were misinterpreted as an indictment of Wall Street in general, in interviews he said that he was talking only about his own compulsive behavior. Yet he did generalize about greed in America in his Op Ed:

Wealth addicts are responsible for the vast and toxic disparity between the rich and the poor and the annihilation of the middle class. Only a wealth addict would earn hundreds of millions as a hedge-fund manager, and then lobby to maintain a tax loophole that gave him a lower tax rate than his secretary.

I wouldn't argue with the fact that whatever you want to call it--greed or addiction--it's a big part of the problem we're facing economically. Like other people with dependencies, Polk sees himself in many others around him who may simply be enthusiastic and productive in their work, but not actually blind to the needs of others. But in himself he saw that blindness, and then saw the light. He started Groceryships, and that's exactly the sort of thing more and more highly compensated people need to do: see the plight of those less fortunate, recognize our shrinking middle class, and take steps to reverse the path we're on. From their website:

While it's hard for families living in affluent communities in Los Angeles like Pacific Palisades (per capita income: $95,000) to eat healthfully, it's nearly impossible in low-income communities like South Los Angeles (per capita income: $13,000). These statistics need to change. The ability to eat healthful foods and maintain a healthy weight shouldn't be luxury items for the upper classes, but rather human rights shared by all. We're committed to turning this belief into a reality.

Grocerships is a combination of a grant and a 12-step support group. It gives families enough money to buy healthful food for six months. In that time, it requires family members to attend weekly meetings on nutrition, cooking and shopping. It also offers weekly support group meetings to overcome food addictions and "emotional eating." It also offers support materials and services such as a Vitamix blender, documentaries about food and health, recipes, exercise regiments, and medical screenings.

The L.A. Times did a fine account of one of Polk's first Groceryships groups, in South Central, where he was at first greeted coldly and with suspicion. But one woman changed her mind simply because in the second or third meeting he asked her how she was doing: she realized she was safe in those meetings and that a change of diet could be the first in a whole sequence of other changes in her life. She began serving her family a breakfast bowl of brown rice, cinnamon, nuts and fruit. Everyone started eating that same meal throughout the day, they liked it so much. She even brought it to her brother's church and served it to the congregation. For her, it was more than a meal. It was the beginning of hope--all because one man turned away from his own greed to start giving back.

Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice. He can be found at Good Reads.