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IMG00319Last 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.


About imagineannie

I feel like I'm fifteen - does that count? I'm lots of things, I get paid to be the Managing Editor for a local news publication, and I love my job. I am also inordinately fond of reading, animals (I have four), elephants, owls, hedgehogs writing, tramping in the woods, cooking India, Ireland, England, avocado toast, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Little Women, Fun Home, Lumber Janes, Fangirl, magic, Neil Gaiman, Jane Austen, YA books, not YA books, classical music, Salinger (OMG SALINGER), Brahms, key lime pie, indie music, podcasts, sleeping in, road trips, marmalade, museums, bookstores, the Oxford comma, BBC, The Miss Fisher Mysteries, birdwatching, seashells, kombucha, and stickers. Not a huge fan of chewing gum, jazz, trucker hats or dystopian and/or post-apolcalyptic fiction (but I'll try anything).

17 responses »

  1. Ann,

    What is broken is our ethical atmospheric monitor. Sounds like your experiment will indeed help the kids, if only in that they have seen the wide swings in the air quality available to the rest of the world around them. It will help them think, to decide with good reasoning what is ethical, how they fit / belong in a larger society.

    It has been a belief of mine since youth that the only lessons we rally learn stem from loss. Abundance and free gratus only teach us to want and to take more. Dont be surprised when, in a few years, your quuestions are answered in the words of some truely impressive young adults. They may actually be worried how the “old people” faired in the experiance…………

    • You are so wise, and so right, Mr. King. As Michelle says (below) this is not a lesson that could have been learned by “telling.” I think the lesson will be absorbed at various speeds, mostly because the group ranged from the very sensitive and thoughtful, to the fairly immature and resistant. Regardless of when they actually see how our lesson fits into the moral/ethical fabric of life and what we choose to do on earth, I think they will never forget the experience, and that they will be less quick to judge people who make different choices because they are desperate and lack “enough” of anything.

      As for us “old people,” I can tell you that this one is still somewhat shell-shocked, while her young and resilient son is perfectly fine.

  2. I think this is an amazing lesson. It is not one that can be taught by telling. I know it was upsetting for everyone but in retrospect, it was probably a very powerful experience. Usually the really good ones come from being uncomfortable and experiencing it yourself. Betsy already told me that kids have emailed/called her and told her what a powerful learning experience it was for them. No mention of “guilt”. I think they are old enough to ask the questions of how to help and not simply feel bad about what they saw. Kudos to all of you.

    • Upsetting may be an understatement. 🙂 I think my perspective is different from the kids’, mainly because I had to function on two levels – as a participant in the experience we were having at that place and in that time, and as an adult entrusted with other peoples’ children who were far from home. With kids of varying maturity levels it was sometimes hard to balance the needs of the kids who were “getting” it and expressing shock and a desire to create change against the needs of the kids who were just not able to see outside of their own panic and sense of insecurity to see a big picture. As I wrote to Robert, i know that none of them will forget what we learned, and I hope that those who couldn’t really internalize it at this stage will come to make good use of the very different perspective we were given from the inside.

  3. Thank you for sharing. A great experience and great insight.

  4. Wow, what an intense experience indeed. I did a one off dinner like that in college, where all that showed up were divided up into groups representative of who gets what to eat. I was stuck in the no food at all group.

    It is an experience that none of you will be able to forget, and a really valuable, though painful one in just how terrifying it can be to truly not know if you will have food enough on which to live. The most basic of all our needs.

    Kudos to you and the others who arranged such a trip, albeit perhaps without full explanation of what would come to pass. Our children, who are indeed lucky, need to be given such opportunities to see reality, for just talking about it will scarcely lead to true understanding.

    • Nicole, they have actually done what you describe on a past retreat; I think both exercises are useful and create indelible understanding. We won’t forget it, and our kids are blessed to be able to feel hunger as a learning experience rather than a reality of daily life. I think they’re kind of blessed that they can help solve the problem, too.

  5. I thought this was a great piece. The problem with being an Oberlin liberal (like me) is that we’re tempted to direct our energies to solve many of the world’s problems at the same time. As you said, choosing to do one thing (making a financial gift, helping out at a food pantry) if this is our “issue” goes a lot further than throwing up our hands and feeling that we need to solve an issue that has been existence since the dawn of time (most likely) by drastically changing our way of life. Also FWIW, I’ve eaten at Riker’s Island and prison food is much better than what you describe!

    • Thanks, Kate. You’re an Oberlin liberal?! (I am smiling broadly, having been cut from the same cloth, so to speak).

      You make a super, fabulous, huge point about the feeling that we need to help out with everything from saving the environment to ending puppy mills…all pressing, all huge, all too big for us to do enough unless we pick one cause and dedicate ourselves to it. If you haven’t, you should read “How to be Good” by Nick Hornby. It’s a great read, and it addresses the issue of how “good” one has to be, and at what point we are destroying our own life and that of our family in order to save the world.

      As for the comparison to Riker’s Island, I’m not surprised, but intrigued – why were you eating on Riker’s Island?!

      • Oh, I guess I should realize you reply to all these responses–you are so good!

        Years ago I was doing some fundraising work for an organization which did adult education, i.e. teaching adults to read and write, pass the GED, etc. They were thinking about applying for funding to teach on Rikers which come to think of it is a jail rather than a prison. So I went on the “tour.” It was actually pretty nice (to someone from the outside)! What really struck me was that they had a working garden and a florist shop for the women.

        What did freak me out though was being locked inside a place, i.e. you go in and you are locked in along with everyone else. I think that influenced my write-up where I told them to think carefully about whether the organization should undertake teaching there.

        We on the tour ate dinner there. The food was pretty bland but plentiful. I do remember being served mixed veggies–a staple of my cafeteria-d youth. I did my best to eat some in a gesture of politeness. All the while the tour guide was telling us various war stories about what disgruntled cooks did with the food before they served it (I will not go into detail here being a polite person.)

        Again, this is a great blog and I look forward to reading more!

  6. Yikes! I don’t know if I could actually sign up for something like this. The closest I’ve ever come was an impromptu camping trip right after 9-11 when we just wanted to get away from everything and packed the camping gear and drove to a secluded campground. We forgot to pack any real meals and lived for two days on some hot dog buns, two chocolate bars and 3 bottles of red wine. I think we had a couple apples or oranges. We were really hungry but, strangely lucid, focused on nature and happily drunk on wine before going to bed. I’ll never forget that trip–especially with the mood of the country at that time.

    • I’m not sure I could, either; I really didn’t understand what I was signing up for. I think your post 9/11 retreat sounds like just what was called for by the times. No one could “do” anything (well, except for George W. Bush) and it seems that retreating and focusing might have been the most adaptive response to an incredibly confusing time.


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