Food. The word itself conjures up so many associations for all of us. A gentle sigh, a little smile, a relaxing of our bodies, a warmth.
I think of lively family dinners around the table talking about the events of our days, farmers markets full of vibrantly colored enticing fruits and vegetables and the wonderful meals they promise to make. Comfort, warmth, family.
Now imagine that the very word…food…brings a sense of fear, anxiety, helplessness, hopelessness, shame. A tightness in your chest, an uncomfortable feeling in your stomach, a quickening of your pulse.
1 in 6 Americans today is unsure where their next meal will come from, and how they will feed their children tomorrow. Gone are the happy family dinners around the table, instead replaced by quiet, tight-lipped, tense meals of too often unappetizing and unhealthy, cheap food.
This is food insecurity; and 1 in 6 Americans are living this way, and many of them are children.
These families use the services and resources available to them – SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, WIC (Women, Infants, Children), food pantries and soup kitchens. For many the very first time they come to the Soup Kitchen is a traumatic event for them. We hear stories every day from people saying that they were raised to be independent, self-sufficient, successful, and they never imagined they would be standing in a Soup Kitchen line. For them it’s a sign of just how bad things have gotten. Before coming to the Community Soup Kitchen they have the same images of soup kitchens that most of us have – long lines, desperate faces, drug addicts – unappetizing, insufficient food that came from a can.
“1 in 6 Americans today is unsure where their next meal will come from, and how they will feed their children tomorrow.”
You can see the relief on their faces that first day after they make it through the buffet line where they are offered abundant, plentiful, good food. Smiles and welcomes abound from workers, volunteers and other guests. You get a sense almost immediately that this is a community, a place where people come together to eat around the table and share the events of their days. It’s warm, and loud, and lively and comfortable. And the food is good. Really good. It’s fresh and healthy and satisfying.
Inherent in the quality of the food is the belief that everyone deserves fresh, healthy abundant food. Everyone. We often talk about childhood obesity rates in communities with high poverty rates, the availability of cheap, processed food in “food deserts,” and the relatively cheap price of canned food or the dollar menu at fast food restaurants versus fresh food. To me it all seems to come down to the availability of choices and access. Choices about what you will eat, how, when and where, and access to not only the food itself but a place and the time to prepare it, which can be very difficult for the single mom working two jobs, or the elderly man living in a rooming house with no kitchen, or the aging grandmother struggling to care for her grandchildren on social security. For too many people in our community, and our world, that choice and that access don’t exist, and they’re left with the dollar menu.
So what’s the solution? I won’t pretend to be able to answer that question, because if it was simple I’d like to believe we would have fixed it by now. But I can tell you what’s working in the Morristown community. Fresh, healthy, balanced meals served in a warm, safe and caring dining room, 365 days a year, to anyone who comes seeking nourishment. Anyone is welcome, anyone, because everyone deserves healthy food.
What’s working are choices on the buffet line, second helpings, third helpings and leftovers to take home. A Healthy Choices Market twice a week to provide fresh produce from local farms, Trader Joes and Whole Foods for people to take home and cook, the way they like it, for their families. Choices and unquestioned access are making a difference in thousands of lives right here in Morristown, and the best side effect of all? It actually creates a community, one meal at a time.
Terry Connolly is the Executive Director of the Community Soup Kitchen in Morristown, NJ
Throughout the month of October, the Dodge blog is featuring blog posts related to food issues and food systems in honor of Food Day 2012. For a complete archive of our food related articles, please click here.
If you are hosting a Food Day event, please let everyone know in the comments section below!