Earlier this year, I became aware that there were children in my son’s elementary school who were, at worst, homeless, and at best living in very uncertain situations. The economy in this state has seen better times, and even families with two working parents are having difficulty making ends meet. There were kids crying because they had no costume at Halloween, and others who clearly had no warm coats, gloves or boots when the weather turned cold.
Looking at my relative bounty, I gathered up several friends and began planning to raise funds to provide a great dinner and some gifts to as many financially troubled families as we could possibly help. We raised a good chunk of change, and arranged with the counselor in the building to work with families to identify recipients as discreetly as possible. With her help, we came up with a list. We know how many people are in each family, and the ages of the children; we shopped today and will shop tomorrow, and the distribution of the gifts will be handled by the counselor in such a way that it is not clear that certain kids (or their parents) are leaving school with free food and holiday gifts.
The gift part was easy: we decided to buy gifts only for the children of the family, and to buy a board game that the family could play together. The food part was harder. Once we had decided on boneless turkey breasts because they were not proscribed by any religions, there was the rest of the meal to plan. Did the families have eggs and butter? Adequate pans to cook a turkey or to prepare even slice and bake cookies? Would they want to eat the kind of things we would eat at a holiday dinner? Where was the line between patronizing and supportive?
In addition to the turkey, we decided on ready-made mashed potatoes (like Bob Evans) because they are easier to prepare than from-scratch potatoes if you don’t have a peeler, a strainer, a masher, butter and milk. (We decided that the potato flakes were just too disgusting, in itself a bit judgmental). We decided to add canned corn because it keeps well and kids tend to like it, and we included a box of stuffing mix, a pound of butter, fresh Clementines, cookie mix or break-and-bakes, Jello (because its fun), rolls, hot chocolate mix and peppermint sticks, and something homemade from our own kitchens.
As we planned this shopping expedition, and what we could provide these families, I kept thinking about the judgments I’ve made at the grocery store upon seeing a cart loaded with chips, store-brand soda, Li’l Debbie snack cakes, and very little in the way of fresh fruits, vegetables, or whole grains. Certainly no fair-trade coffee, artisanal cheeses or organic carrots. I am not better than those people; I have more time, more money, possibly more education, and the luxury of worrying about the flavor and texture of my food as opposed to whether or not my family will have enough to eat.
Food that we might classify as “junk” is often cheap, familiar, and easily available to the majority of American families. I couldn’t make the decision that we should buy only organic, healthy, locally grown food items for the families from our school; our food budget might then have garnered each household enough for one person to eat well, and it probably wouldn’t have been food that was enjoyable for or comforting to that family. It would have been judgment in gift’s clothing.
I’m not sure that I have a point (the intellectually acute among you may already have begun tapping your respective feet wondering if I will ever get there). I enjoy being a foodie. I enjoy buying beautiful produce from the farmer’s market, and I shun Parmesan in the green shaker can, processed American cheese food and Funyuns. Those are decisions I can make for my family because we have the means to pay for and the ability to access the foods that are currently accepted as ethical, culinary and nutritional “best practice.” Its important to remember, though, that not everyone does. And there, but for the Grace of God, we all go.