About-face today, folks. I’m sitting here feeling like there’s only one thing I want to write about at the moment, and it’s a kids/food/parenting/food cultures/food systems type of thing…an experience I had once that is sitting heavy with me this week as we all hash out our Halloween strategies to curb our kids’ potential overindulgences and figure out which candy is the most responsible to hand out to the little goblins who will be beating down our doors on Sunday. In other words, I’m about to get touchy-feely and just a wee bit activist-ish. Consider yourselves duly warned.
Although I’m not working in the non-profit world at the moment, I come from a relatively broad background of working in various NP organizations, dedicating my efforts in many roles to all kinds of causes. The common thread has always been children — from using my M.F.A. in dramatic writing and arts education to work with kids who have special needs or who are living in low-income, resource-poor communities; to creating broad-based community service learning programs for a major youth service agency; to running the education and community partnership efforts for a domestic violence and sexual assault agency, it’s always been about kids and families for me. Yes, I’ve been accused of being a bleeding heart (not that I mind). Mainly I just think I have been set down where I’ve been needed and where I’ve needed to be.
Anyway, in that last non-profit job, working in an environment where I was surrounded on a daily basis by survivors of terrible violence, I experienced things I didn’t ever think were possible in modern-day America. And sometimes, in the face of all the severity of the trauma, I’d find that my coworkers and I were almost becoming numb to the horror stories; like a survival mechanism, we conditioned ourselves to withstand the worst of the experiences. I found myself fixating on the details instead. I would obsess privately over the little glitches in the systems that made it harder to help people than it should have been; I’d lay awake at night wondering why our ability to make things better was confined to just working our way up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, more or less, and never getting much above shelter and food (and not always accomplishing those well, either). Sure, we offered counseling, and sure, that helped a lot of people to a degree — but honestly, there was so much insecurity among our clients when it came to where they were staying, what they might eat, how they could take care of themselves and their children, that those concerns consumed them. And us.
You’re wondering what this has to do with kids and food. I’m getting there.
One day I went with one of the counselors on what was essentially a mission of mercy. She had a new client, a woman who was carrying a high-risk pregnancy and was supposed to be on bed rest. She and her other children were staying in a makeshift shelter of sorts until beds for them opened up in a bona fide shelter. I’d never even known that places like this existed; but there are places, places you’d never guess or think of, where non-profit agencies hide clients away for their own safety until there’s a better solution available. And in this place, this family and many others would stay for…oh, maybe days…maybe weeks…and some of them would be there for months. Months. In a place where they had no kitchens, where they had only a small sink and a tiny microwave, where they’d be lucky to get a mini-fridge less upscale than the ones you see in college dorm rooms.
Sure, they were safe from the tragic and unimaginable circumstances that had put them in need of shelter. But to what end? They couldn’t come and go freely — it was too dangerous. This mother in particular couldn’t even go to get her own groceries, because of her medical concerns. And even if she could have gone, there was no way for her to pay, because a gap in the system meant that it would be days or possibly even a week or two until food stamps would become available to her family and in the interim, she’d been forced to flee with no money and no resources and no way to help herself or her kids. There was a food pantry, but she’d have to go herself and present the proper paperwork to register; even then, she could only use it once a month. She was stuck.
So we got a small amount of money from our agency — I think it was $25. We had to go to the store and buy as much food as we could for her and her children on $25. And if that sounds easy, consider the following restrictions:
1) Nothing that required much chopping and preparation — they didn’t have knives or kitchen utensils or anything above and beyond some paper plates and plastic utensils.
2) Nothing that had to be cooked, unless it could be cooked in a microwave.
3) Nothing that needed to be refrigerated or frozen.
4) And it had to be enough food to tide them all over for as long as possible, until the food stamps came in or the pantry regulations could be met or they could get into a real shelter with a kitchen for them to use.
I was heartsick as we approached the grocery belt with our purchases. My coworker and I looked at each other — we both had small kids at home — and she said to me, “I’d never feed this stuff to my child. I wouldn’t feed it to a dog.” Processed, packaged ready-meals in shelf-stable pouches…jars of bargain peanut butter, loaded with sugar and hydrogenated oils…store-brand white bread full of chemicals…”juice” boxes for the little ones, a specific request of the mother’s, which clearly contained nothing resembling actual juice. Neon macaroni and cheese that could be made just with water from the sink. The best purchase we made that day, besides the one bunch of bananas we dared buy in the hope that they’d be eaten before they spoiled, was a huge box of Cheerios, but we couldn’t afford Parmalat, so they’d have to eat them dry. We were nearly in tears as we paid for the “food” and drove to the location where we’d give it to the family.
Make no mistake about it: we searched that store, calculators in hand, trying to find ways to stretch our dollars for better food. But this was not a mission about nutrition, it was about CALORIES. I’ve never in my life had to shop that way, and I hope to never have the experience again. It’s the most gut-wrenching, humbling thing I’ve ever done, and they weren’t even my kids — but it went against every nerve in my body to hand over that junk to people who needed and deserved far, far more than what we could give them.
Food insecurity is a terrible beast. It’s not just about hunger — it’s about basic dignity. I don’t need to tell anyone who reads this blog that kids benefit in so many ways from family meals, and yet those who need them most desperately — those who have had their worlds shaken to the core by violence and insecurity of every imaginable kind, those who have had few, if any of the advantages the rest of us take for granted — sometimes get relegated to circumstances like what I’ve described here. Where it’s not even just about the hunger and the access to food, but at an even deeper level, access to the means to prepare and serve that food. Access to a table where everyone can eat. Access to utensils. Access to napkins. Access to sinks large enough to wash up afterward. Access to a home. Access to life.
I don’t think there’s been a day since then that I haven’t thought about that family, and all the others in that position, for at least a moment or two. And all the Halloween excess brings it to the fore for me, because those kids can’t go trick-or-treating. It’s not about what candy they’ll be allowed to eat, it’s about the fact that they probably won’t get any candy. It’s not about whether or not the candy will ruin their good nutrition, because we haven’t provided them with access to good nutrition, and some of the things they will have to eat for lunch or for dinner this week in those makeshift shelters are not much better for them than a Snickers bar. How righteous and self-indulgent might all our quandaries about this holiday seem, to parents in positions like these? Because they wouldn’t hold the candy back from their kids or try to substitute it for pencils and stickers — they’d let their kids have as much as they wanted, just to give them a moment of feeling NORMAL.
And when Halloween is over, and it’s back to the day-by-day grind of living that life, what a gift would it be for those parents to be able to COOK for their children, to serve them REAL FOOD on real plates, to sit together around a table and have a family meal every evening without struggle and challenge and heartache? To have the advantages and luxuries that we have? What would it take, I wonder, what would it take to make sure that everyone, everywhere in this country, has the opportunity to do just that much for their children? What would it take to make real, unadulterated food no longer a privilege but a foregone conclusion for all? And how could we offer every family the opportunity to feed themselves with dignity, gathered around the table, the way it’s meant to be?