via Avedon Carol


So there we were, in line, Chloe standing apart from us, arms folded. Giselle and Ivan, however, talked to everyone, asked questions about what we would eat, where we would sit. When we got to the front, we each took a cafeteria tray. Chloe went first, and when a woman asked her if she wanted salad, she glared at me before answering. We all moved down the line, choosing from the selections: fresh fruit, salad, turkey casserole, fried fish, rice, beans, salsa, bread. One of the workers saw the kids come through and went into the kitchen. A moment later, she emerged with a jug of chocolate milk and set it on the counter. Women and men smiled at us, asked us "How much?" and said "Tell me when," then pointed us toward the tables. Along another counter, there was coffee and tea and juice, desserts even, day-old things from bakeries in town, each of them laid carefully on paper plates. Near one door was a pile of day-old loaves of bread and a heap of men's clothes -- all flannels and thermals. People took what they needed from each as they came and went. When we left, the bread and clothes would be gone.

We sat at a booth, and a teenager in an apron brought us silverware wrapped in napkins. The guy with the earring brought the paperwork, and handed it to me as the kids began to eat. It asked for family information: ages of children, number of adults, total income. I cringed when I wrote in my gross salary, but when I gave the form back, the guy just nodded. He looked about to say something, but didn't, so I asked him if I made too much.

He shook his head. "We don't take the information for that," he said. "But you'd be surprised about the people who come in here. Lots of them are like you."

The food was decent, a bit better than run-of-the-mill cafeteria food, and healthier. I could tell that whoever made the food had thought about it carefully, had tried to make it nutritious, hearty. One man, one of the few who looked truly homeless, came through the line, then sat in a corner. His tray was piled with food, enough for three meals. He ate methodically, slowly. He finished it all before we left.

Other people filtered in, and a few had children. I watched these children. At first I thought they were angry and sullen, like Chloe was. But they stood quietly next to their mothers, and they were polite and kind, much unlike Chloe, who was flicking bits of stringy turkey at her siblings. It wasn't until Ivan and Giselle saw the other kids and got up to talk to them, and I saw those kids flinch, that it began to make sense. Ivan and Giselle were acting like being here was no big deal because they hadn't grown up with this, and they hadn't a clue what it meant to be at a soup kitchen. They didn't feel ashamed of anything. So they asked questions of everyone, wondered aloud about how the serving dishes kept the food warm, and why there were single desserts instead of the served kind, and where the bathroom was. Even Chloe's sullenness was better than what I saw in those other kids, which was an acceptance of the situation and all it implied, all we load it with, all I loaded it with, despite my liberal proclamations, my lovely words and rhetoric argued in college classrooms, where I could turn a pretty phrase and win an argument about classism or poverty. I had grown up "poor," whatever that means, and hungry sometimes, too. But I had never been to a soup kitchen, didn't have a clue what it looked like, what it felt like, and I'm sorry now that I had pretended to know and that I had made use of something I had no right to use.

I could segue into some political rant here, a slick dismissal of the Bush administration, perhaps, or a paragraph declaring my support for Barack Obama. But the moment I walked into the soup kitchen -- the moment I acknowledged, publicly, that I could not provide food for myself or my children (which is why the soup kitchen is so much more difficult than the food bank) -- is the moment that my ability to believe in the politics of this country was forever altered. I know why poor people have historically low voter-turnout rates. If you vote, you acknowledge that you believe in the system. And to believe in the system when you're at the very bottom, when you've watched the chrome and ink-black SUVs drive by while you're packing your own beater with dried beans and lentils, to believe at that point is fucking painful. You either say the system works and you've earned your place, or you concede that there is something wrong and there might not be any way to fix it. The entire summer of 2007, as I struggled to keep us fed, I hated thinking of politics, an unusual characteristic for me. It hurt to listen to any presidential candidate talk about the working poor, and not because they weren't genuine, but because all their talk was just that -- talk. It was like listening to my former self, the one who didn't know how bad things could get.

Our cupboard was bare
by Heather Ryan

September 2008 is Hunger Action Month

local opportunities by state

from the Hunger Action Center:

This year, more than 35 million Americans will experience food insecurity. That’s 1 out of every 10 households nationwide.

Chances are someone you know doesn’t have enough nutritious food to eat.

Here are the facts:

• 38 million Americans live below the poverty threshold

• 35 million Americans are food-insecure, hungry, or are at risk of hunger

• 36 percent of client households served by America's Second Harvest Network have one or more adults working

• 1 in 5 single-father homes are at risk of food insecurity

• 1 in 3 single-mother homes are at risk of food insecurity

• Almost 13 million children in America live in food-insecure households

• 62% of all households with children under the age of 18 receive school lunch assistance

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