On my radar: Paying it forward

2014-02-07 10:00

The end of January is an unpleasant time, even for those who don’t have to count their pennies.

We all overspend, and for those who have them, we load our credit cards and then hold our breath when that heart-stopping moment arrives and your January credit card statement displays the proof of your festive folly.

For the less fortunate, denying your children a bit of festive cheer is difficult, so the impact in January is doubly painful.

At the end of last year, I noticed the resurgence of an old Italian tradition, caffè sospeso, literally translated in English as suspended coffee. Perhaps it had something to do with the extremely cold winter in the northern hemisphere, but it was an old trend that was worth reviving.

Here’s how it works. You find a coffee shop that buys into the concept of “suspended coffee” and when you order yourself a coffee, you add another coffee to your bill, but it’s not for you.

The coffee shop keeps a record of the number of suspended coffees donated. When someone who cannot afford a cup asks if there are any suspended coffees available, they are given a free one.

The origins of this tradition are unclear, but it seems that it started in Naples at the beginning of the 20th century, when the first coffee machines were invented.

Back then, coffee was not something everyone could afford, so the first people who were offered free/suspended coffee were carriage drivers, after which the custom spread.

While coffee may not seem like an essential food item, it does nevertheless provide a hot beverage for the homeless, or simply for a pensioner who can’t afford life’s little luxuries.

It’s a good concept that can be implemented and applied to other food industries. In Naples today, the idea has spread to a few pizzerias, so you can now buy a suspended pizza for someone who needs a meal.

Seventy-four-year-old Ivan Esposito, a resident of Naples and a regular buyer of caffè sospeso, says of the custom: “I think of it as a gesture of civility. It’s not charity.”

In previous columns, I have written about new trends in which communities help each other out. It is a ripple effect of the global recession. However, many of those trends rely on social networks. In effect, they help mobilise those who have to help those who don’t, but bridging that gap via technology is always going to be problematic.

The beauty of the caffè sospeso concept is that it was born long before the technological revolution, so it retains a practical means of implementation. It is one of those brilliant concepts that allow people to “donate” painlessly and effortlessly at the point of purchase – a system any charity strives to have.

With our growing coffee culture, creating a caffè sospeso movement in South Africa would be great, but imagine what we could achieve if we could extend the concept, as the pizzerias in Naples have done, and involve supermarkets and grocery stores.

I can already hear the naysayers mumbling about how such a system would be open to abuse, so perhaps we start with baby steps. How about a loaf of bread from your local bakery or corner cafe, or a ready-made sandwich from wherever you buy your lunch?

And if your empathy chip refuses to be kick-started at the thought of charity, then do as Signor Esposito does and see it as an act of civility, a random act of kindness.

The term “paying it forward” has always referred to a beneficiary of a good deed repaying the deed to someone else, rather than the original benefactor.

Asian religions would see this as cultivating “good karma”, but equally, Christians should be familiar with the phrase “you reap what you sow”.

For atheists, I would approach this as an act of active citizenry, something many South Africans feel we lack as a society.

If you’ve already failed to keep your new year’s resolution, then adopt this as an alternative. It’s a resolution that will be much easier to keep, and one that is guaranteed to make you feel infinitely better.

Join the Suspended Coffees movement on Facebook: www.facebook.com/SuspendedCoffeess?ref=hl

»?Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. Visit fluxtrends.com

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