28 mars 2016

On Feeling Good and Food Activism

On Friday, March 18, I joined the Haverford College volunteering organization, 8th Dimension, on its (first) annual Day of Service, during which I chose to give up three hours of my time after French Class to better the lives of hungry people in Philadelphia. To be honest, in choosing among the different events, I didn’t read much more than the first sentence—the group needed a minimum number of people in every program for each to run properly, and, by the program’s end, I would have most likely done something to better the world, whatever that may mean. As long as I took a space somewhere in the day’s events, and other people did the same, the Day of Service could stave off any attempt at mortality, and I could pursue a different activity in March 2017.

After my sprint from class, during which I quietly muttered unintentionally bi-lingual excuses to justify my few-minute tardiness, I met the two other students and three faculty members who would join me on the journey from Stokes Bay to University City, the headquarters of Witnesses to Hunger. We drove in two separate cars, segregated by age, until we arrived at a moderately priced parking area near a Drexel office building, where we eventually united with our guide, Callie, a Haverford House Fellow. She escorted us to the top floor, the organization’s headquarters, and we joined together at a small table, accompanied by three life-size posters inundated with photographs of the organization’s life story and events.

With donuts at each table-setting, Callie and a colleague of hers discussed the state of American hunger, and what Witnesses plans to do about it, informing us of the organization’s history, its current projects, and its future plans.

The statistics, enumerated, are frightening. And, yet, even with them, my only sense of worry lies in my mind, in my vague conception of what every day being like Yom Kippur could be like.

“In 2012, 8.1 million children were at risk of hunger.”

“15% of Americans are living in poverty.”

“1 out of every 4 children under 5 lives in poverty [sic].”

“12.2% of children under 5 live in extreme poverty [sic].”

“45 million Americans are food insecure.”

“17 million children are food insecure.”

“9 million infants, toddlers, and preschoolers are food insecure.”

I’d never fasted for Yom Kippur, when I was a child. I started in the 7th grade, and stopped in the 8th grade, when we realized that my casually diagnosed Irritable Bowel Syndrome may be symptomatic of Crohn’s Disease. And, even that one year, when I fasted for Yom Kippur, I walked to the synagogue with my family, left services early to spend the rest of the afternoon with my friends in the basement of the building, and arrived again right before the shofar blast, before I could begin to eat. I didn’t attend school that day, I didn’t do any of my homework that day, and I certainly didn’t worry that, by sundown, I wouldn’t have any food to eat. In my fasting, I tasted only enough of American hunger to claim empathy, and to feel good about it.

Callie, her colleague, and six members of the Haverford community sat around a table in an expensive Drexel office complex eating donuts and sipping ice water, as we passed around photographs of hungry people, of children and their parents, of refrigerators stocked with half-finished expired foodstuffs, of locks and chains that keep residents from returning to their foreclosed home.

The goal of the organization was largely to connect the stories of hungry people with their legislators, their guardians in the government, so that the communities of mostly wealthy White men may turn their eyes to those less fortunate than they are. For the hungry people whom representatives of Witnesses to Hunger met, the organization reached out to food banks and public homes, in an attempt to fix the problems of a few. But, Witnesses, now, is mostly a liaison, and is still in the process of organizing grassroots efforts to alleviate the communal hunger felt in many Philadelphia homes.

One of these projects, EAT Café, is a “non-profit, pay-what-you-can café” centered at 3820 Lancaster Ave, a midpoint among several Philadelphia neighborhoods, aimed at providing nourishment in a glorifying manner to local residents, while simultaneously organizing community activities, such as poetry slams and informal concerts. The construction for the café will ideally finish in May or June this year, but concerned citizens and organizations, as well as a smidgen of national chefs, have poured in funding for the establishment to run at low (suggested) costs for as long as possible. If this café proves to become as successful as the handful spread across the nation are, then, perhaps, more EAT Cafés may begin to emerge in new cities, mimicking the expansion of Witnesses to Hunger itself. Until then, it remains a dream of a social experiment testing the philanthropy of neighborhood residents when they know no one is watching.

In September, I can pester the rest of the S-Chords, my a cappella group, to drive down to EAT Café and sing for the neighborhood audience, and, perhaps, even make that concert a (first) annual occurrence. Or, if I continue to live in Philadelphia, I can insert myself into organizations such as this one, to instill the grassroots change necessary in executing a dreamplan such as EAT Café. Or, I can write a check and subsidize meals for a month or two.

But, on this day, we drove in two cars to eat donuts, talk about poor people, and look at a construction site. Despite its educational nature, pervading the afternoon’s escapade was a painful irony: In our learning about the problems, we used up resources in the area that we failed to return in any meaningful way. My new knowledge about the state of hunger in Philadelphia is at the expense of someone’s lunch, of three hours of work-time for two employees, of a further step towards instilling positive change.

But, I learned. So, that’s something, I guess.

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