Wednesday, December 08, 2010

the many faces of hunger

thanks for permission from Jeff Danziger to reprint
When my mother saw Injun Joe* and his wife Mary tramping up our long driveway she’d exclaim, “Oh, Lord, here they come again,” in spite of the fact that it had been a month or so since they’d shown up the last time. It was common knowledge that the little old man and the little old woman would periodically (when the Check came in) walk from their shack in the woods about a mile from our house to the tavern in a neighboring village five miles further on, where they would get roaring drunk until the sheriff drove them home. They stopped at our house to pick something up that we saved for them. I think it was newspapers, though I have no idea what earthly good newspapers would have done them.

In return they insisted on giving us some of their government subsidy brown rice or some other brown grain. My mother never used it. It was common knowledge that it was weevily. Mom seemed to resent those visits. I didn’t know why – they really were no trouble – but I got the feeling that it was maybe just that these two poor old Indians had the nerve to think they could give us something that we needed or would deign to use. And maybe also that the sight of them brought up a vestigial fear of impoverishment and hunger.

There were many ways we were impoverished, but hunger for food was never a problem. We were farmers in an extended family of farmers – our entire lives revolved around food. We had fresh milk everyday and butter and eggs and a chicken in the Sunday pot, vegetables from the garden, preserves, bushels of apples and potatoes in the cellar. We had pork from the annual slaughter. We had beef. It was really GOOD food, not the kind of crap that poor people eat today when a bag of chips and a soda pop are cheaper than a bunch of carrots and much more filling.

And it’s not just poor people. A few years ago I sat in a government office talking to an official. Behind the adjoining desk was a woman* whose upper arms fell away in tanned folds of fat above her elbows. One of those elbows rested upon the desk and regularly flexed to allow her forearm and fingers to descend to a carton of little orange cheese thingies and then rise to feed her mouth, which was set amidst several cheeks, jowls, and chins. Note that she was not wolfing down porterhouse steaks with their attendant mouth-watering fats and juices nor glasses of whole milk nor rounds of fully ripened cheeses, in fact, nothing made by nature, but tiny little crisp factory-fashioned morsels made of the most refined flours and sugars and oils, so far away from anything that grows from the earth that they were unrecognizable as food at all. A beautiful woman resided inside those layers of fat, a still-healthy one, it seemed. But if she wasn’t diabetic yet, she surely would be soon, because it’s a simple case of cause and effect: sugar and refined grains cause obesity and diabetes and other deathly diseases as well. And there goes that hand again, into the carton and there it goes fingering the evil little devils into the mouth.

Putting a face on hunger is not the easiest thing. In our world hunger crosses money boundaries, and in our world the hungry are most likely not skin and bones with bloated bellies – they are, not to put too fine a point on it – the fat people, and they may or may not know that they are hungry; and they may or may not be monetarily poor.

I asked friends and acquaintances if they’d ever been hungry, and their thoughts on hunger. After I recounted my Injun Joe story to my friend Susan, she recalled her elderly mother a few years ago asking her to pick up a “tramp-lock” at the hardware store. Susan said, “I don’t know what a tramp-lock is, Mom.” Why, it was a chain lock to go inside the kitchen door so that the door could be opened thus far and no farther, so that a dish of food could be passed out with no danger of the recipient being allowed in. It made me think of tramps and hobos and stews, but I had never heard the term before. So of course I Googled it and found only one reference to the term. It was used in the book, “Afloat and Ashore on the Mediterranean, by Lee Meriwether (1904). A tramp-lock was used for guards to open prisoners’ doors enough, ostensibly, to hear the priest down the corridor saying mass.

Another person told me, “Tramp lock reminds me of monasteries and churches where they still have special windows where foundlings (babies) can be left.” She went on to say, “Handing out food, feeding the poor (the sharing of bread & wine) has a long history in Christianity, and shame is still associated with that type of charity.” She found it interesting that in those terms the giver and receiver did not have to see each other.” Yes, shame is a big part of this, isn’t it? No matter how undeserved by either party.

“Like, REALLY hungry?” asked one friend. “Like, shoplifting a package of cheese to get through the day and not knowing about tomorrow? Like, panhandling enough for a box of crackers or swallowing pride to ask neighbors for something, anything? Even, gag, dumpster diving?” He paused. “Actually, yes, but not for many, many years, and never for more than a few days. But I do remember and I am always mindful of how much I have and how long it would last. Right now, in the house and garden, I could probably stretch it for about three weeks, if I had to.”

That sounded like “food insecurity” to me, and I asked what could be done about it. He said, “We need a community infrastructure to wean ourselves from the big business of food – food prepared for us, food conveniently packaged, food that has traveled too many miles, fast food, junk food, food marketed by brand instead of nutritional value.”

We kind of have that here with the Farmers’ Market and the Co-op, but what about the people who can’t afford that kind of food. Let them eat cheap meat and vegetables from the grocery store that have been adulterated by the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, antibiotics and hormones? Or a bag of chips and a can of soda? You know that that’s going to come back and bite us when we have this enormous diseased wave of people that society has to care for one way or another.

When I asked the question of Carol Tashie of Radical Roots Farm, she said, “Personally, I have never been hungry. Amazingly fortunate – especially when you think of the entire human community. What percentage of people on this planet could say that? What percentage in this country? In this state?”

When I talked to Carol’s partner, Dennis Duhaime, last Saturday at their stand at the Farmers’ Market, he told me they took a load of butternut squash down to the city for Thanksgiving, and gave it to a person who operates – entirely on his own – a little storefront soup-kitchen in Queens, and that he made squash soup from those Vermont butternuts to feed the hungry. I love this – a couple of people making a difference with no diminution from bureaucracy.

In that same spirit, RAFFL operates a Grow-A-Row program for which farmers and gardeners contribute some of their product to the Community Cupboard and BROC; and the farmers regularly contribute leftover produce after the market is over. Still, the Mission and the Community Cupboard and BROC need each and every one of us to contribute food and/or labor to help them feed the hungry.

Another friend wrote: “There is hunger in every community. My wife and I work at the Sunday Breakfast Mission in our town and serve between 150 to 200 meals Sunday evenings to homeless men, women, and CHILDREN! We don't see them during the day, or do we just choose not to see them? Some of both I believe. I encourage you no matter where you live give some of your valuable time to help feed another human being!”

In a Newsweek article, “Divided We Eat”, Lisa Miller has a conversation with a Brooklyn localvore and writes, “Over coffee, I cautiously raise a subject that has concerned me of late: less than five miles away, some children don’t have enough to eat; others exist almost exclusively on junk food. Alexandra concedes that her approach is probably out of reach for those people. Though they are not wealthy by Park Slope standards—Alexandra works part time and Dave is employed by the city—the Fergusons spend approximately 20 percent of their income, or $1,000 a month, on food. The average American spends 13 percent, including restaurants and takeout.” The woman answers, “This (buying local) is our charity. This is my giving to the world... We contribute a lot.”

You know, in this era of declining middle class and the rise of the ultra-rich and corporations with the rights of individuals, we are likely to be seeing more and more hungry people – there is greed abound in this land – and that hunger may be the result of impoverishment and/or ignorance, or simply the brainwashing power of mega-corporations and even the medical establishment. “We have rich farmers feeding lousy food to poor people,” writes Michael Pollan, “and poor farmers producing great food for rich people.” But here in Vermont we have great farmers needing our patronage – those of us who can afford it – so that they, and we, can continue to take care of our hungry, whatever face they wear.

So yes, once again, Support Your Local Farmer, but in addition call one of the following and ask them what you can do to help:
And when you hear the phrase ‘common knowledge’ dig a little deeper. You might be surprised at what you find.
simple foods like apples and squash are cheap and easy to prepare,
but some people don't know how to prepare them. Heck, some people don't even have a kitchen.
*I've taken the liberty to use what might seem to be stereotypes of the 'drunken Indian' and the fat lady eating crap, but please know that the first is simply an observation of the prevailing attitudes in the 1950s and the latter is my own observation as truthfully if not tactfully as I can describe it.

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