Since embarking on this weight journey seven years ago, I’ve lived, breathed, written about and obsessed over food. I’ve studied it, planned my life around it, cursed it, adored it, avoided it, snuck it, and forgot about it.
But never in the last seven years – or ever – did I lack it. Never did I not know where my next meal would come from or what it would be.
When I began volunteering at an inner city non-profit a month ago, my intent – in addition to “helping people” – was to learn more about community nutrition by working for the agency’s food pantry, soup kitchen, and Meals On Wheels program. What I’ve learned so far is just how naively short of reality my definition of “community nutrition” fell. Feeding people in need is much more than filling a bag of groceries, spooning mashed potatoes on to a plate, or knocking on a door.
The effort it takes to feed thousands of people every month is nothing short of Herculean. The manpower required (both paid and unpaid) and the volume and variety of food (both donated and purchased) that is delivered every day is staggering. And every day, those people unbag and unload and prepare and distribute that food.
In the soup kitchen, they clean dishes, scrub floors, pare potatoes, chop onions, divvy up desserts, roll plastic silverware in napkins, bag containers of milk and juice, assemble sandwiches and hot meals and bag lunches, chop meals for those with no teeth, hand out extra ketchup because it’s the nice thing to do, say no when it’s necessary, put on and take off multiple pairs of latex gloves, and fight with hair nets. (But maybe that’s just me.)
In the food pantry, because it’s January, funding sources require every person who comes in for groceries to have new paperwork filed. Each person must present proof of income (or, in the case of no income, fill out a non-income affidavit) and a recent piece of mail to verify their address is within our service area. Then they need to answer questions: How many are in your family? Ages? Do you receive food stamps? Is anyone in your household disabled? Does anyone in your family not have health insurance? How far did you go in school? Do you own or rent? While I understand the relevance of each question and how the answers will be used, there’s an unavoidable sense of judgment attached to each one.
One young woman I interviewed Monday said she’d worked at two jobs all of last year. One as an administrative assistant for a non-profit agency and the other as a clerk at Staples. After the holidays, the non-profit’s grant was not renewed and Staples let all holiday staff go.
“I work hard, I really do,” she said, wiping away a tear. “I’m out there every day trying to find something. I don’t come here very often, maybe three times last year, but I have my kids and…” She looked away.
I can’t assume to know what it’s like to be the thousand families the food pantry serves monthly or the 85 Meals On Wheels clients or the 95-125 soup kitchen clients served daily. I know some are indifferent and are not affected by the hoops they are required to jump through. But many, like the young woman I interviewed, swallow a lot of emotions to feed themselves or their family.
Of all the many things my blog readers have taught me over the years, perhaps the most universal is that emotion and food cannot be separated. There’s the detachment of enough and the fear of not enough. There’s the pain of addiction and the casualness of indifference. There are the opposite feelings of warmth and guilt when in the presence of comfort food. There’s a sense of belonging and pride when preparing or eating ethnic food. Food is complicated.
Of all the things I’m learning as a volunteer, the most important thing so far is understanding that the “community” in community nutrition is all of us. Whether we’re heroin addicts or stay-at-home moms, shoplifters or Wall Street analysts, living under a bridge or sailing a yacht around the world, we all need food. How we acquire it is our only real difference.
Food is something I will still obsess and write about, analyze, study and eat too much of sometimes, but food is something I can no longer – in good conscience – take for granted.