Last Wednesday I traveled out of state with a group of 11-13 year olds. We were the “pilot” for a middle school program in faith-based social justice centered on the urban poor, although the organization has offered a “poverty simulation” program for high school students for several years. I was under the impression that our trip was service oriented, and that we would be in the community doing whatever needed to be done. Mostly, I was wrong. It was a tough four days, and sometimes I was as angry as I’ve been in many years. Whether or not I agree with the contours of the program, I will say that all of us learned a great deal about what was enough, mostly in the context of food. We learned who has enough (we do), and who doesn’t (a huge percentage of the U.S. and world population).
The night of our arrival, we were tired after driving all day, and the shock of an un-air conditioned building hundreds of miles south of home was quite a shock for those of us who are delicate Northern flowers. We were ushered into a large room with a cement floor, given a bowl of plain white rice and a spoon full of beans, and a cup of water. We ate sitting on the floor. It was, calorically speaking, enough food for any one of us, but it was not what the kids were used to eating, it was prepared without benefit of seasonings, and it was edible in the way that I imagine food in prison to be edible. One eats in order to live, but there’s nothing pleasant about it.
Some of the kids refused to touch it, others ate only the rice or only the beans, and by morning, they were very hungry. We were not allowed to keep the food we had brought in the car; it was confiscated and locked away. We were also allowed no snacks. For these children from fairly affluent suburban homes, this was the beginning of “food insecurity,” of not knowing when or if you would eat again, and not knowing if what you got would be enough. In the morning we were allowed one hard boiled egg, one piece of toast and a carton of yogurt. Again, enough food from a calorie perspective, but some of our group (accustomed to a bowl of Captain Crunch or a couple of Eggos and syrup) complained bitterly about the “grossness” of the eggs, one couldn’t eat yogurt for health reasons and also hated the hard boiled eggs. It was a challenging meal, but I was still calm in the face of the lesson we were learning, confident that no well-padded kid who had eaten at McDonald’s the day before would die as the result of one day of eating light.
Around this time, the program’s leader taught a lesson centered around the “Manna from heaven” story in the Bible. In case you are not up on your Old Testament, the story is as follows: the Israelites finally got out from under Pharaoh’s thumb, and found themselves in the desert. They were hungry, there was no food, and they began to complain, whereupon Moses chatted with God who hooked them up with Manna, a food substance that appeared once a day and was apparently pretty tasty. God told Moses, who told the Israelites, that there would be enough, that they should not try to take more than they needed to be satisfied, and that it would rot if they tried to preserve it. Of course, they tried to preserve it, and it rotted. Eventually they learned that God would provide enough for everyone, every day, and they got with the program. Whether one is Biblically inclined or not, the message is a valuable one: the resources are present for everyone on earth to have enough to eat, and if no one takes more than their share, everyone gets fed.
After the much-loathed egg, toast and yogurt breakfast, we visited a local Freedom School, and went to a community center where we cleaned out a gym, including moving four couches out of the building and sweeping and mopping the floor. We were tired, we were hot, we were hungry, and when we returned to our home base we were given three small boxes of food pantry food, and told that we had to make do with it for the rest of our stay. For 16 people we had three packages of ramen noodles, three boxes of macaroni and cheese, three or four cans of beans, a couple of cans of mixed vegetables, assorted tins of potted meat, a can of Vienna sausages, three cans of tuna, three cans of fruit, a jar of peanut butter and three sleeves of Saltines. With this, sixteen people were supposed to eat two breakfasts, two lunches, and two dinners. We were also told that we were not allowed to use the oven or stove.
I was livid; this was not what we had been prepared for, and it really didn’t seem to be “enough.” I was appointed Cook, and immediately divided the available food into meals, preparing to play a very angry game of Iron Chef Poverty. Lunch was peanut butter crackers and potted meat and sausages for them as would eat such things (and most of the kids wouldn’t) and while it wasn’t haute, I knew that if it was possible to die of starvation from eating nothing but peanut butter crackers, I would have died during law school.
By dinner I was beyond livid and into a sort of hot, sullen malevolence. On the positive side, we were being taught a lesson, and some of the kids were really “getting” the fact that this was how some people lived, including people in our own city who went to school with them. On the other hand, I was feeling that as adults, we were responsible for the health and welfare of children who might be suburban and spoiled, but who were not guilty of anything other than the good luck of being born into families living well above the poverty line. I made dinner out of the boxed macaroni and cheese (no butter, no milk, hot tap water) and added the vegetables; I would have added the tuna to make sure everyone got some protein, but there were kids who protested that so vehemently that I thought they might use up their limited energy reserves having fits. We had our tuna on the side, along with about 1/3 cup each of the macaroni slop (pictured at the top of the post).
That night, we found that the brief dip into poverty simulation had ended. The kids received a modest portion of popcorn as an evening snack, and the next morning we were back to a hard boiled egg, half a bagel and some yogurt. Dinner was actually quite festive, and we were allowed to eat sitting at tables for the first time since our arrival. No one died of starvation, several of the kids remarked that they were surprised at how full they got eating the small portions we were given. It seemed that we had passed through the valley of the shadow as better, more sensitive people. The next day we drove home, where, after an intense period of disorientation (and a lot of crying on my part) life returned to normal.
And in the end, the question is: what did we learn? I think we all learned the lesson that everyone deserves enough to eat, that we generally have more than enough to eat, and that when one doesn’t get enough, it makes it harder to think, to work, and to be a valuable part of society. I had certainly understood before the trip that there are a shocking number of people living in poverty, but I had not personally been hungry unless it was because I was dieting to lose weight…because I had too much. It struck me, in thinking about our experience, how bizarre it is that so many Americans have to elect to starve themselves to a certain point because we can’t help outselves in the face of the bounty around us, while there are people who are enviably slender because they never get enough to eat.
On the other hand, I had a sense that our experience created guilt in the children without offering clear direction about what could be done to share the wealth. Do they have to give their food away? Should they feel awful every time they sit down to a meal that tastes good and satisfies them? Should I feel guilty because I have the option to buy organic vegetables, and fancy sea salt, and steel cut oats? To make things right on this earth is it necessary for one to renounce all pleasure because others suffer? Didn’t (fill in higher power here) provide us with the ability to cultivate and prepare delicious foods? For many folks, myself included, guilt is only a powerful motivator to the extent that I can actually do something about the source of my guilt. Otherwise, there is a Skinnerian sense of frustration and helplessness, and it is easier to bury the guilt than to dwell on it, knowing that there is no way to change things.
I wish I had those kids back, just long enough to tell them that they don’t have to feel bad about themselves; they just need to use what we learned as motivation to make some changes. We can donate food and money to local food banks, or give to organizations like Oxfam. We can grow an extra row or two in the garden and share fresh produce with families that desperately need it to lead healthy lives. We can pick up and repurpose restaurant and retail surplus, and serve at soup kitchens. We can be mindful of what we eat, and maybe even choose to give up a weekly restaurant meal or expensive cuts of meat and donate what we save to feed the hungry.
We can do all of this knowing we are not personally and individually able to redistribute the world’s food supplies, and that we are not “bad” because we are not impoverished. We are just lucky. I hope that we can do it in a way that avoids the judgements and self-righteousness that often come with “do-gooding,” and balances our guilt about our own good fortune against the understanding that we can only help others if our own oxygen masks are firmly in place. I’m not nearly done thinking about all of this, and I hope that the children who traveled with me are still thinking about what they learned. I also hope they understand that they are deserving of every birthday cake, clean bed, full stomach and quiet night with which they are blessed. All children are.