Serving meals, shedding anger, at a free lunch program in New England
Toward the end of last year, something happened. I still can’t say what, exactly, I just know it happened almost overnight.
For two years, I’d been reading and blogging almost exclusively about food. I’d devoured articles about CAFOs and corn, downer cows and diabetes, subsidies and school lunches. I’d sat behind the computer screen, fuming about high fructose corn syrup, additives that knock points off of childrens' IQs, the millions of dollars spent by agribusiness on lobbying, grocery store layouts, portion distortion, the psychology of marketing junk food to young children, even exploding lagoons of toxic pig manure.
And more. No matter how much I read, there was always more.
Somewhere along the line, I got angry. I’m talkin’ really angry — the kind of angry that makes your hands shake a little, that makes you start to see the world in black and white, Good vs. Bad, the kind of anger that makes you spit venom, forget everything you once learned about dialogue, about catching bees with honey. I felt angry that I had so little voice; angry that we taxpayers support food policy that makes us less, not more, well; angry about what kind of world we were leaving behind, angry that it is so hard — so mind-numbingly difficult sometimes — to raise healthy kids in a world where obesity and heart disease seem to be an ever-upward trend.
And then — poof — something snapped. Since it happened last fall, it would be easy to pin the something on Hope and Change, but the truth is, I suspect it had more to do with weariness. I grew weary of rage, weary of indignation, weary of my own droning sense of righteousness. Even rightness.
I was weary, too, of the computer screen. It was time, I realized, to stop Googling and start showing up.
For the last several months, I’ve been volunteering weekly at a free lunch program in an old industrial mill town, a community where the hunger rate is six times greater than the state average and where one out of every three children lives in a food-insecure household.
Some would call it a soup kitchen, I suppose, though it doesn’t feel quite like that. Dignity is important in this program, so meals are served restaurant-style, instead of in “chow line” fashion. Besides, when we talk about soup kitchens, we tend to imagine rough, unpleasant places filled with dangerous, dirty characters. It’s not like that at all. It is simply a place where community members come to be fed, sometimes get a little conversation.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s no Lifetime movie, either, where soul-swelling orchestral music plays in the background as we take solace in good works. I have yet to find grace or wisdom nesting inside bubbling pots of chicken stew. There have been no life-changing moments of clarity, no epiphanies, nothing that feels like heroism. My experience has been more about tiny acts: dipping a large spoon into a vast pot, scooping a heap of mashed potatoes onto a plate. Or mixing cranberry juice in large pitchers, stirring, then pouring into cups. Placing a plate of pasta in front of someone and asking, “has the snow started yet?” Collecting salt and pepper shakers when the meal is done, wiping down a table, grabbing a mop, stacking folding chairs. Telling the first-timer, the clean-cut guy with the button-down shirt and downcast eyes, that yes, definitely, lunch is served five days a week, and yes, he’s always welcome.
The work is physical and unglamorous, and the experience meaningful in only the quietest of ways.
And how about the food?
The program I chose does impressive work, even by ethicurean standards. In warm months, one finds gazpacho from local tomatoes and robust salads fresh from local farms. The kitchen chefs take farmers market fare and turn it in to lovely, bubbling soups. Whenever they can, they roast local vegetables, slice local carrots, serve local cider. And when local farms have a glut of zucchini, a bumper crop of potatoes, this organization is probably usually the first place they send it. This program is as much a part of the farm-to-table network as any institution in the area.
But it’s not summer right now; it’s a long, cold winter in New England. Although every meal beats the low-nutrition junk food seen at many food pantries these days — last week, for example, we served a salad prepared with Earthbound Farms organic greens — the truth is that nothing is local at the moment, and even the best program makes compromises. That juice I mix up? It often contains high fructose corn syrup. I’ve helped chili from BPA-lined cans, then scooped that chili over inexpensive hot dogs. I’ve poured gallons and gallons of milk that was likely produced with rBGH, sliced plenty of additive-laden desserts, made coffee that is far from Fair Trade. In short, I've served plenty of the industrial food that we typically eschew in these pages.
After years Googling food, it’s hard not to notice these things, hard not to make the connection between inexpensive food and hunger itself, connections made eloquently by folks like Raj Patel and Mark Winne. And yet I could hardly call myself an ethicurean if I didn’t do whatever I could, with what I have at that moment, to feed hungry people who are coming in from arctic temperatures, desperately in need of a warm meal.
People are hungry. That’s real.
Last fall, U.S. Food Policy blog wrote that at some point in 2007, 11.1% of U.S. households were food insecure. In a 30-day period, 6.3% of households were food insecure. Fifty percent more U.S. children went hungry in 2007 than in the previous year.
According to Second Harvest, more than 38 million people, including nearly 14 million children, are living on the brink of hunger, not sure of where their next meal will come from. That’s more than the population of the 30 largest cities in this nation combined — more than all of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, San Jose, Detroit, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, San Francisco, Columbus, Austin, Memphis, Baltimore, Fort Worth, Charlotte, El Paso, Texas, Milwaukee, Seattle, Boston, Louisville, Washington DC, Nashville, Las Vegas, and Portland, Oregon. Combined.
These numbers are daunting. But they are also surely too low; all of them were collected long before the economy stunned us with its swift, shocking downward spiral.
Recently, a number of Ethicurean bloggers had a lengthy email discussion about a Tyson anti-hunger campaign in which the company offered to donate food in exchange for comments on a web site. Some called it out as a publicity stunt, and I agree; there was an element of P.R. about it. But in discussing possible responses to the campaign - was it something we acknowledge on the site? Was it worthy of discussion, dismissal, or condemnation? - the person who sent us the link commented that "we cannot consider ourselves ethicureans if so many people in our society can't count on food of any kind on a regular basis, much less SOLE food...food is a divider just like many other basic goods in this society: the affluent have health insurance and everyone else has the emergency room; the affluent have mutual funds and 401(k)s and everyone else has credit card debt; the affluent have artisanal bread, grass-fed meat and heirloom vegetables, and the poor have government cheese."
She was right, of course. There are certainly exceptions — people living below the poverty line who manage to stay healthy with lentils and home-grown fare, well-planned meals and some old-world skills — but we all know that these individuals are hardly the norm.
As I now see it, we must pursue multiple goals at once. There is the long term - which, when we are at our best, those of us who call ourselves ethicureans can do by educating, by discussing, by networking, by trying to shape smarter policy.
But there are also short term goals, and meeting them means stepping outside of any farmers market bubble in which we might find ourselves and doing the immediate work of feeding bellies now, today - by mixing and stirring, scooping and serving, whenever we can. The reality of our current food system pretty much guarantees that these short term efforts will involve some measure of high fructose corn syrup and Red Dye #40.
Is that ideal? No. Our food system is far, far less than ideal.
But maybe, if we do it right, these short-term acts can renew our commitment to that long-term vision, and we can approach agricultural policy and food justice issues not from a place of righteousness and snark, not in a way that wearies us and drains us of energy, but from this simple commitment: to make sure our neighbors are fed, and — just as important — that they are fed well.
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