The one who moves a mountain, begins with removing small stones.
– Chinese proverb
My father lived through the Great Depression and in many ways he never outgrew some of the habits he had developed out of necessity during those lean years. He saved everything – repurposing envelopes from solicitations that came in the mail, washing and reusing Ziploc bags until they no longer closed, turning scraps of paper into scratch paper, and straining old cooking oil to use for frying the next meal, just to name a few things. He never wasted anything, especially food. Any leftover food on our plate, if we couldn’t be forced to finish it or didn’t push it off onto our father’s plate without my mother seeing, was fed to the dogs. My father tended a huge vegetable garden behind our house, and what vegetables he couldn’t fit in the freezer he gave away to relatives and friends in the neighborhood. My mother, her family, and her community in the mountainous Baguio City endured food shortages during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, and one of my mother’s siblings died of malnutrition during World War II.
My sisters and I got it from both sides – you will not waste food. Period. Their habits were ingrained in us. Except for reusing old oil, I picked up a lot of my father’s Depression-era practices. I really hate to throw out spoilt food (I should say that I hate letting food get to that state), regardless of the fact that we can now compost all food materials, not just vegetables and fruit. Trying to teach my kids to be grateful for the food on the table is difficult when they have never had to go without food, shelter, or clothing – and as parents, that is our goal. That is what my parents strove for – having their children never wanting for the basics. It reminded me of a post-interview conversation I had with a Latino executive for a SHPE Magazine (Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers) freelance assignment. He had related his experiences of being the only Latino in his first job at a corporation, save for the janitor who was cleaning the offices at night. He and his generation paved the way, faced all these obstacles, so that their children would not have to experience discrimination. The paradox that the first-generation immigrants inadvertently create, however, is that their children are far removed from and therefore cannot fully appreciate the struggles and the barriers that their parents and/or their grandparents endured and tore down, respectively.
Being thankful every meal
One tradition that we engage in before eating our dinner as a family is to acknowledge the cook, thanking mom or dad for making the meal. Now that they are both going through growth spurts, they are hungrier leading up to dinnertime and ask me every evening when I’m preparing the meal: “What’s for dinner?” Oftentimes, they are excited, telling me how much they love that dish, although my daughter is very finicky about her food. Lately, I feel as if they truly appreciate the fact that they eat flavorful, home-cooked meals and that we eat as a family about 95 percent of the time. That said, I still feel as if I could do more to drive home the point. (My idea of having my family serve Thanksgiving dinner to families in need has to wait until my daughter turns 12 in order to participate, according to a local food bank.)
A Place at the Table
Reading the Sunday paper two weekends ago, I came across an interview with Top Chef Judge (and Chef and owner of Craft restaurant in New York) Tom Colicchio, whose wife had co-produced and co-directed A Place at the Table, a documentary on hunger in America. The film was opening in Berkeley for one week only, and its engagement across the country is limited. I immediately knew what we as a family were going to be doing that Friday evening, so right after my son’s batting practice we hightailed it to the movie theater for the premiere. I was disappointed that there were no lines to see the show (we were at the second of three showings that night) and that the theater was maybe a fifth full, though the review in the Chronicle had just come out that morning.
I already knew many of the stats that the film presented. The already wealthy agribusiness industry reaps millions of dollars of subsidies for growing corn, soy, wheat, rice, and cotton, while social programs such as Women, Infant and Children (WIC) are vilified for being “welfare handouts.” The overabundance of corn and soy, which are found in most processed foods, make those packaged foods cheaper than healthful vegetables and fruit. This has created the paradox of obesity and hunger being prevalent in lower socio-economic communities. It reminded me of a conversation I had with my son two years ago as I drove him to his weekly physical therapy session at Children’s Hospital in Oakland. At a stoplight in one of the neighborhoods where a handful of men were hanging out in front of a convenience store, he stared out his window and asked me why poor people were fat, with the subtext being if they don’t have money to buy food they should be skinny. It was, as they say, a teachable moment for the both of us. I told him that poverty and obesity are complex issues but that they are inextricably linked, thanks to the prevalence of processed, packaged foods and the unavailability of healthful foods – either because the local stores simply don’t sell them or they are too expensive to buy.
The film addresses this issue time and again. In one particularly poignant scene, a fifth-grade teacher in a rural community in Colorado delivers bags of groceries from a food bank to families. As a child, she had experienced hunger or “food insecurity” – coined in 1996 by the World Health Organization and defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as the state in which nutritious, safe food is unavailable or inaccessible. The teacher nonetheless struggles with the dilemma – and irony – of handing out food that, for the most part, is processed and therefore full of the bad kind of carbohydrates – starches and refined sugar. Her resolution: Processed food is better than no food.
As I mentioned, many of the facts were well known to me. A few, however, were not, such as the behind-the-scenes negotiations for the Healthy Start Act, which was introduced to increase access to and participation in the School Breakfast Program when Congress was in the process of reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act. The National School Lunch Program is supported by the purchase of USDA commodities, which explains the kinds of food we parents see coming out of the school cafeterias – even my kids have no desire to eat school lunches. The nickel and diming of the so-called bipartisan legislation ended up amounting to something in the range of six cents extra per child. The documentary shows the triumphant authors of the bill, supported by kids waving plastic school lunch trays, hailing the new legislation and pointing out that no new taxes were implemented to fund the program. What you don’t know, and what is ubiquitous in all pieces of legislation in terms of funding, is that the six extra cents came at the expense of cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which was formerly the food stamp program. It’s another instance of irony in the film and a typical Congressional act of “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
I also didn’t know that Actor Jeff Bridges had founded an organization called End Hunger Network back in 1986 and has been working tirelessly with this issue since then. In the documentary, he declared, “If another country was doing this to our kids, we’d be at war.” Indeed. Bridges, as were many of the people interviewed, were passionate and well spoken, including the many faces of those living with food insecurity on a daily basis, but the person who really made an impact on me was a young single mother of two from Philadelphia named Barbie Izquierdo.
She brought up the well-known research on the benefits of families eating dinner together on a regular basis – kids do well in school and are less likely to be involved in substance abuse. The irony for her was that while she could sit at the table with her kids, there was no food on the table. She said, “I feel like America has this huge stigma of how families are supposed to eat together at a table, but they don’t talk about what it takes to get you there. Or what’s there when you’re actually at the table.” When she gets a job after a year of unemployment – working for a hunger coalition group – you rejoice with her, as she describes feeling important, visible, and literally having a spring in her step as a result of finally becoming employed. And then three months later, we find that she makes too much money to qualify for SNAP, and her kids are deprived of breakfast and lunch on a daily basis.
Feeding our kids should not be a bipartisan issue. As one federal official said in his testimony to a Congressional subcommittee, only one-quarter of young adults aged 19 to 24 are physically fit to join the military, which is a national security risk in the making and an issue that should compel hawks to address hunger and obesity in this country. Children who are deprived of food even for a short period of time during their early years are at risk for cognitive impairment and face a higher risk of myriad emotional and physical ailments, which ultimately impacts the ability of nation to be a global leader. The cost of hunger and food insecurity to the U.S. economy is $167 billion per year. What is infuriating and yet what provides great hope is that hunger is curable. It happened in the 1970s through federal programs, and we have the means to eradicate it today.
As the film was winding down and I wondered how it would end – hopeful or depressing – at first I thought there’s no real silver bullet save for an overhaul of federal policy and legislation and an overhaul of our national perception of poverty. Those who want less government want faith-based and other organizations in the community to take up the cross, so helping local food banks seemed to be playing into that philosophy. Disrupting and changing policy seems insurmountable. I ended up being hopeful. As a spokesperson for the Witness to Hunger program, Barbie gave a speech that fittingly ended the film. The program, which provides a platform for low-income women to tell their stories, was founded by Mariana Chilton, a professor of public health at Drexel University. I found Barbie’s speech while researching the film for my blog, and I present it here:
“‘You are where you come from.’ It is a quote that is said very often, if your mother was a single mother you will be a single mother. If no one in your family was a high school graduate you will be the next one to follow in those footsteps. Have you ever been surrounded by the people you love, like your children, but feel completely alone? Have you ever been in a home with open doors but feel trapped? Have you ever been in a neighborhood with constant yelling, screaming, gunshots and fighting, but are so accustomed to it that it puts you to sleep? I know what it’s like to have your children look at you in your eyes and tell you that they’re hungry and you have to try to force them to go to sleep as if they did something wrong.
Take time and learn a little from each of us because you never know where tomorrow can take you. Remember us. Remember people like us that are here in the United States that need help that are not receiving it adequately. If we switched lives for a week could you handle the stress? If we switched salaries for a month will you be able to live and still keep your pride? Are you aware of my hope and my determination? Are you aware of my dreams and my struggle? Are you aware of my ambition and motivation? Are you aware that I exist? My name is Barbara Izquierdo and I do exist.”
A Call to action
When the film credits rolled, I turned to my daughter, whose eyes were glassy and red. The film made her feel sad. I told her it was an opportunity to feel empowered and a call to action. When we got home and the kids went to bed, I looked up what we, as individuals, families, and communities can do, and there are a lot of things to do. A Place at the Table’s website leads people to many avenues of activism. At the grassroots level, we can look to Ample Harvest‘s core mission of leaving no food behind. Ample Harvest connects home and community gardeners with local food pantries, so extra harvests can be donated and consumed, rather than thrown away or used as compost.
Share Our Strength‘s Bake Sale for No Kid Hungry is a project to help individuals, companies, and organizations to host bake sales in their communities, with the proceeds going towards ending childhood hunger. Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry 2 Action Center is an online resource center geared for young people who want to address childhood hunger issues in their communities. The center provides tools to help young people, parents, and teachers to lead volunteer and advocacy efforts to raise awareness and find solutions.
At lunch the next day, we talked about what we could do in our schools and communities. I can’t say that my kids will run with any of my suggestions or theirs – my daughter wants to grow a garden and share the produce – once the passion runs its course and we get back on that hamster wheel that defines our daily lives. But I feel as if we have already started down that path of understanding, which is the necessary foundation for action. Part of living the creative life, and part of being a writer, is to try to understand the human condition and to uplift it with the gifts that were given to us and to do so in the best way that we can.
Get involved, however small or big, with an open heart.