Friday, October 21, 2011

Food Is Life: Remarks to Students at Maranacook Community School, October 20, 2011

I want to thank Pat Stanton, dean of students, for inviting me to speak for your Make A Difference general assembly today. I’m so tired, my legs can hardly hold me up, but here I am. It’s hard to turn down an opportunity to speak to young people who inspire with their commitment and desire to feed people. I'm honored to be here.

A wise man once said, “There’s a hunger beyond food that’s expressed in food, and that’s why feeding is always a kind of miracle.”

There’s a hunger beyond food that’s expressed in food, and that’s why feeding is always a kind of miracle.

::

Back when I was a kid in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, our family struggled to make ends meet. My father worked the first shift at Pabst Blue Ribbon Company in the mail room. A World War II veteran with little education, he was basically the company mailman. My mother held a string of part-time jobs to help put food on the table for their two children. As hard as they both worked, and they worked hard, we needed food stamps in order to survive. Still, my parents made clear in both word and deed that no matter how little we had, someone else had less and we needed to help them however we could.

I’ll never forget the day. I was about three or four years old when a young girl who smelled of dried urine knocked on our door. My father was at work, my sister at school. My mother let the girl in and escorted her to the bathroom where she drew a bath for the girl, who couldn’t have been more than 12 years old. After bathing her, my mother gave her a blouse and a pair of pants and sat her down at the kitchen table for a steaming bowl of Cream of Wheat, bacon and toast. I couldn’t believe how fast the girl devoured it all. It was an image that stuck with me, like good preaching. She ate another bowl of cereal and then my mother let her take a nap on the couch. Later, when it was time for her to leave, my mother handed the girl a brown paper bag with a change of clothes and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich inside.

I couldn’t count how many girls came knocking on our door over the next months, but they came nonetheless. My mother cared for each of them in almost the exact same way, like ritual. Our home was a stop on an underground railroad for throwaway girls.

It’s no surprise, then, that I would turn my current home into place where anyone, no matter their need, can come at any time, no questions asked, and receive food.

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an entire community to feed an entire community.

::

Food is life.

When I first made the community aware a year ago that free food was available at the farm 24-7, I heard all sorts of caveats and concerns. “What if someone takes all the fresh food from your farm stand and goes out and sells it?” Where is the love in that question? “Then I guess they need the money to make their rent or pay their mortgage,” I replied. “How can you be so sure that the people who take it really need it if you don’t ask any questions?” You can’t.

But so what.

Last Wednesday, during preparations for the Hot Meal To-Go at Annabessacook Farm that the Winthrop Hot Meal Kitchen provides each Wednesday until we can find a permanent home to provide food and fellowship for people each weekday, a woman called to ask if we still had half a bushel of tomatoes to sell. Her voice sounded vaguely familiar, but I didn’t recognize whose it was. I told her we did and asked her what she wanted them for. “Canning,” she said. “Then we have some left to sell,” I replied. It’s late in the year and tomatoes have pretty much gone by, but we were lucky enough in recent weeks to harvest another three bushels perfect for canning because most of our plants grew in a greenhouse film-covered tunnel in the middle of the field behind the barn.

“How much are you asking for them?” she asked timidly. From her tone, I sensed she had need.

“How much are you offering?”

“10 bucks,” she replied, a question mark still in her voice.

“Perfect. Do you know where we are?”

“Oh, yes. I’ll be over this afternoon.”

Hours later, a woman walked up to the door, a woman I hadn’t seen since last summer. From September through November, she came once or twice a week and purchased pounds of Swiss chard, bushels of tomatoes, cartons of squash. She was preparing for winter and I was honored she chose our farm to buy the food she would process for her family.

“I haven’t seen you in a long time.”

“I’m unemployed now.” The look on her face broke my heart.

“Was it you who called earlier about tomatoes?”

She nodded. I nearly lost it. I wouldn’t call her my friend – we don’t hang out and do stuff together or anything – but she’s certainly my neighbor. I knew she worked for the State of Maine and with all the recent budget cuts, it didn’t surprise me that she’d lost her job. I also knew she had a big extended family to feed and here she was on my doorstep knowing we give away food but offering to buy a half bushel of tomatoes nonetheless.

I tried not to be awkward. I’m not sure I succeeded.

“Um. Well. It’s Wednesday and we offer a free hot meal today in addition to the fresh veggies. Would you like one?”

She shook her head, eyes cast down at the ground upon which we stood.

“We’ll, I’ll be insulted if you don’t take some of this food I cooked, so here.” She obliged. I gave her four meals, asked her to put them in her car and meet me in the garage so I could show her where the tomatoes were.

She handed me the 10 bucks before walking to her car. I didn’t refuse the money because I’ve been poor and hungry and it still never felt right to me to take anything for free since I was lucky enough to always have a few dollars to give. Clearly, she felt the same way. I didn’t want to insult her either.

After we showed her which box to fill up with organic tomatoes, my godson and I left her alone in the garage where all of our fall harvest is stored. Winter squash and pumpkins. Melons, carrots, turnips, rutabagas, and beets. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, cabbage, onions and leeks.

We sat in the kitchen and watched her through the window put the box of tomatoes in her car. Then she went back and got two more boxes of something else. That made my heart sing.

And so it was that a woman in need called on a hot-meal Wednesday offering to buy tomatoes so she wouldn’t feel shame about coming to receive the food she needed. That’s called pride. And I know there are lots of people like her who would never use a traditional food pantry they’d have to sign-in for because their pride simply wouldn’t allow it.

When she was leaving, she saw my godson and expressed her gratitude with a smile. “Tell Craig thanks so much for everything.”

If you saw her walking down the street, you probably wouldn’t think she was hungry. That she needed food. You can’t always tell. You just can’t. You can’t ever be sure the level of need a person has, but know this: everyone has a right to food so we must make sure we don’t keep anyone from the table. No one among us should go hungry for a single day. Put another way: we cannot allow a single person among us to go hungry for a single day.

::

Now make no mistake, feeding people isn’t a selfless act. We’re only as strong as the least among us, so if one person is hungry, we’re all hungry. Moreover, the miracle of feeding people that the wise man I mentioned earlier spoke of happens as much inside the person giving the food as it does in the person receiving it. That’s how love works. The act of giving brings me joy. Pure joy.

Sometimes I happen to be in the music room in the front of the house when I see someone through the window gathering food off the farm stand by the side of the road. Much of the food there disappears in the middle of the night so if I catch a chance during the day, I always stay and watch until they’re finished. What will they take? What do they like to eat? What do I need to grow more of next year? I’ll watch them fill up a bag and drive away. Sometimes a person will sample something – a string bean or a cherry tomato – and decide it’s not sweet enough or firm enough and they’ll choose something else. Sometimes I feel like I’m spying on them, but hey, they can’t see me inside, it’s all out in the open anyway, so I get over myself and allow my writer’s curiosity to win out. When I watch a hungry person or a person in need have a chance to actually choose what they take to eat, I smile then. Or laugh out loud, rain falling from my eyes.

::

Food is life. People who want to live need to eat. And there’s no reason whatsoever why we can’t come together as a community and feed them. I’m going to say that again:

People who want to live need to eat. And there’s no reason whatsoever why we can’t come together as a community and feed them.

So go, young people. Go. Out into the community and collect as many pounds of food as you can collect for the agencies in your community that feed the people.

Food is life.

Now go. Make miracles.

3 comments:

Jess said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rikyrah said...

you are wonderful. thank you for having a caring soul.

Colleen said...

My family would like to help. We live in Greene. I sent you a FB message, but I'm not sure if you've read it yet.

Colleen Mahan