Living in a country that seems to almost worship food, it’s hard to imagine that anyone in the United States goes hungry. Yet last year, according to the USDA, a record number of households — 17.9 million, didn’t have enough food to sustain healthy, active lives for its family members. This means approximately one person out of every six, felt the hollow ache of hunger.
This is staggering. How can this many people go hungry in a country obsessed with food?
It seems that when anyone mentions food, they are talking either about an obesity epidemic or latest diet fad. We are too fat; or we are too thin. Just like the fairytale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, we are anything but just right.
We are a country of extremes with entire television channels dedicated to food; social gatherings centered on calorie-laden delectables; chefs that have reached celebrity status for their concoctions of butter; children growing up thinking fruit is flat, leathery, and shaped like 4-inch rulers — with names like swingin’ strawberry and kickin’ kiwi.
Then there are the serial dieters, and the much more serious, eating disorders. Whether it is South Beach, Atkins, Grapefruit, Cabbage, Slim-Fast, or Medifast, Americans are always looking for some way to limit their intake of food – sometimes to the extreme of eating disorders. It is self-deprivation derived from society’s devout reverence for dieting. It is completely different than someone who is starving because they don’t have food to eat.
Despite our preoccupation with food, we don’t often hear about those who don’t have the luxury of either extreme. Food, for one out of every six, is reduced to its simplest form – a necessity.
As always, I have never understood how people get chosen to be the unlucky number of a statistic, but what we all have to remember is that every number has a face, a soul, and in this case, a gnawing emptiness in their belly.
When I volunteered at the local food bank last week, I learned more about the faces of the hungry and the people who serve them. Our food bank is an important resource to more than 450 member agencies in North Florida. These agencies include ministries, church pantries, medical clinics, senior citizen centers, after-school programs, summer programs, shelters and feeding sites.
Of course, part of the oxymoron of hunger in our food-obsessed culture, is that we waste a tremendous amount of food. Our food bank is the link between surplus food and agencies serving those in need. The majority of surplus food from grocery stores, bakeries and the like would be thrown away without this link.
If a food can gets dented or an item is approaching its shelf-life, it is donated to the food bank. Member agencies come in and shop much like the way you or I would at the grocery store, except here they pay by the pound. Even the most extreme coupon-ers couldn’t compete with the savings the food bank offers. The least expensive item is produce for 3 cents a pound, and the most expensive item, meat, is a nominal 19 cents a pound.
When I arrived at the warehouse, I met the volunteer coordinator, Larry. He asked me why I wanted to volunteer there, and I told him about my mid-life mission to perform works of mercy. I have yet to tire from the reactions I get about my ministry — which range from sincere enthusiasm to skeptical, but polite head-nodding. He was more of a head-nodder.
Larry was obviously on board with the mission of the food bank and took me on an informative tour of the warehouse. He told me about the Kids Café, one of the nation’s largest free meal service programs for children. It is a cooperative effort between members of the Feeding Americas food bank network and local civic and government agencies. The food donated to Kid’s Cafe is kept separate from other food at the food bank because there is a higher standard for nutritional value for children. There are 2,700 kids who participate in this program.
For most of these children, their diets begin and end with the school day. Free breakfast and lunch are available through their schools, and a nutritious after-school snack is provided by the food bank. However, during the weekends or extended school breaks, many of these children go for days without eating.
In an effort to address this dire need, the food bank initiated the BackPack program which is designed to bridge the gap between the school week and weekends. Each Friday, a bag of food goes home in their backpacks to provide meals for the child and other members of the family. Currently there are 600 children participating in this program, with another 2,100 other children in similar situations going without because of lack of necessary funding.
Larry also taught me some food bank lingo like “food-insecure,” which amazingly has nothing to do with American’s neuroses with eating. It basically means you don’t know where your next meal is coming from. The fastest growing populations of food-insecure people are the working poor, households that have working members, but after they pay the rent and the light bill don’t have money to buy food.
After the tour he assigned me to a group of corporate volunteers who were sorting a myriad of canned tomatoes. I felt like Bubba in the movie Forrest Gump, except instead of shrimp varieties, it was tomatoes. I had never seen so many versions of tomatoes — diced tomatoes, tomato paste, tomato soup, stewed tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, whole tomatoes, tomato juice. Then there were the products of tomatoes — spaghetti sauce, enchilada sauce, pizza sauce. Every tomato-type imaginable was sorted into boxes by me and the other volunteers. When we were finished, there were boxes stacked four across and four high from our efforts.
Larry’s next task for me was making grocery bags for anyone who showed up to the agency looking for food. While the food bank is not intended to serve individuals, but rather the organizations that serve the individuals, they understandably get people who show up hungry. In this case these people are given a list of organizations that can help them, and a small bag of food which should sustain them over several days.
I shopped from the aisles of mismatched foods trying to put something in each bag that was hearty like stewed meat, Vienna sausage or pasta. Oatmeal is my morning comfort-food so when I saw boxes of instant oatmeal, I made sure to include one in each of my bags.
Of course this made me think how different my life is from people who depend on these organizations. I put honey, walnuts, hemp or flax on my oatmeal to enhance its nutritional value and its taste. I had to wonder, if the persons these bags were going to even have a microwave to heat the oatmeal. Perhaps out of oatmeal-induced guilt or simply thinking they could use the endorphins, I squeezed a box of cookies into each bag before I knotted it closed.
After I made to-go bags, I stocked shelves and sorted bread items–making sure anything moldy was thrown out. There was something meditative about the kind of work I did – the sorting, stocking and shelving. It reminded me of praying the rosary. Each can, loaf of bread, box of cookies I touched was like a Hail Mary for the hungry. It was physical, but calming. Perhaps the monotony of the work held particular appeal while trying to digest all that I learned about the food bank and hunger in my community.
Before I left, Larry and I talked again about the work they do at the food bank, and works of mercy. His skepticism seemed to evolve into enthusiasm for what I was doing, and he asked me where I worship.
This question startled me – not that he wanted to know where I went to church –it was how he worded it that made me pause. He wanted to know where I worshiped. He told me where he worshiped.
I said I was Catholic, as if to say I am not really sure that we worship – we pray, we practice, we believe, but worship? I thought that was a word used to describe foodies.
Certainly it’s simply a matter of semantics. It reminded me of the lyrics from an old song by George and Ira Gershwin, “you say tomato, I say tomahto…”
Regardless of how you say it, we need both kinds of sustenance to survive – physical and spiritual. Those who don’t have enough to eat depend on the generosity of those who do to fill the physical void of hunger. In turn, that generosity provides hearty nourishment for the hungry soul, making sure we are all well fed.