We Believed in Things

(“Ending World Hunger Starts here: Please Don’t Waste Food” Sorry so blurry)

This poster hangs in the dining room at the Franciscan Mountain Retreat of Mt Irenaeus in western New York. It is more than forty years old. When I was last there, Fr Lou at the retreat was interested to know how I remembered its exact age. “I made it,” I said.

When in college I started the World Hunger Committee, which had a short-lived purpose to provide information about the plight of hungry at home and abroad. Maybe the greatest accomplishment of the group was obtaining permission to have just one day where all students who were on the dining plan would turn in their dining cards for that day and the money would go to World Hunger organizations. I do not know if that tradition continued, but we managed my senior year and it was quite rewarding to find out the dining hall was nearly empty the entire day (the staff knew ahead of time how many would not be there that day so they would not, ironically, waste food).

But before that, when I was a sophomore, I had twenty-five of these posters made and put them up around campus. A few went in the dining hall, a few in the campus café, and one in the campus ministry, where Fr Dan Riley, founder of Mt Irenaeus, was then working. I still have one at home.

It’s a bit surreal to sit at the dining room table at the mountain and see the poster. I can picture a young man, a boy really, standing next to one of the Wintermantel brothers in the then-brand-new Studio 4 East discussing the phrase to put on the poster. I came up with the words, and he came up with the idea of the wheat stalks up the side. It is like a different life, a movie I once saw and only kind of remember the plot. But that scene I recall just fine.

And here is the evidence that those times existed—like going from dorm to dorm to speak at floor meetings where we collected money to help the hungry. We were inspired by the late Harry Chapin, who championed efforts to end world hunger, and who had recently been killed. We held a coffeehouse during which we handed out information about the numbers of hungry in the state and the country. And we helped sign up volunteers to assist at the Warming House in the next town. It was a time—both the era and our age—when we believed in things like solving world hunger, like achieving world peace. We were so idealistic but we added some action to the mix. We were going to end world hunger; but if all we did was feed some of the homeless in Olean or made others aware of how much food we wasted, that’s fine too.

But like all twenty-year-old’s I aged, lost some idealism, got busy with life, and the energy of that time faded. Graduation has a way of filtering out idealism.

But on that day when everyone left the Mountain but me, I sat at the table and stared at the poster. It was like it suddenly became animated and was calling to me across the room, across decades, and it said, “Where the hell did you go?”

“I got sidetracked I guess,” I said to the wheat stalks. I thought about what I had for lunch.

It is coming on forty years later and today forty percent of food is wasted every year in the United States. Forty percent. 60 million tons worth of produce alone is wasted every year just in this country. According to a study published in The Atlantic, food occupies the single largest amount of room of all landfills. One reason is American’s maniacal obsession with perfection. Most of the waste is the result of blemishes on produce, or other such aesthetic “faults” which cause chefs both professional and not to toss food away.

Another reason is how cheap food can be, so throwing it away doesn’t have much impact on the budget. In addition the portions are insanely large, and to make it worse parents stand over their children trying to push in another fork from the way-too-big pile of corn and tell them to “eat every bite” because there are children starving.

Result? Some American kids get fatter while some American kids get nothing, and the balance gets tossed in the trash. The only punishment for the stuffed kid is “no dessert” for not gouging his mouth with more and the punishment for one in five American children is to go to bed hungry.

We think of “wasting” food as a “trash” problem. That is just part of it. Wasting food is also a consumption issue. Portions, again, are too large, snacks are too common, people eat between meals, multiple dinners, and while the recommended daily caloric intake is about 2000, the average American caloric intake every day is 2900, while 1 in 5—that’s ONE in FIVE—children’s average caloric intake is 700 a day. That’s just a little less than one blueberry muffin from Starbucks. I could go on; there seems to be some rekindled idealism in my dormant conscience. But the point is clear: we don’t need to feed the world to help the less privileged—the first step to ending world hunger is much closer to home:

But we are overwhelmed. The war in Ukraine; the climate, the fires, the floods, Covid, political unrest, racism, mass shootings. And on a personal level, I fell into a ditch a few years ago and every time I try and get back up, or every time someone tries to help me, I fall back down under the depressive weight of reality. I don’t mean to, despite lectures about how I need to do things differently. I’m sixty-two for God’s sake; of course I know better. So imagine how it is for children with no resources, no clue as to where to turn for assistance, or even that there is such a thing as assistance. In the world today, it seems like hungry children and starvation don’t even make the top ten of issues which must be addressed. Where’s the USA for Africa crew? What happened to Bob Geldoff and his mates? God, we need Harry Again.

The problem is we are, all of us, smothered with issues and problems. The world, simply put, sucks right now, and it can all seem too much to deal with. I went to a local organization a few months ago, left the car running to go inside for a second and offer my time in any way they could use me at their food bank. Well, it turns out they do so much–they run flea markets, food distribution, furniture sales, Habitat for Humanity, and a dozen other charitable efforts in a deceivingly large warehouse. The woman in charge whose name is on the building gave me a tour and introduced me to everyone–every single person–in the complex, explained to me what their missions were for each section, where everything comes from, where it goes, who does what, where they got the walk in freezers and where they hope to get more storage units. I made it back to the front door and a woman handed me my car keys. “I turned it off for you,” she said. Three hours had passed.

I went home (just a few miles away and I swear I had no idea what they did there), overwhelmed. I went in wishing to help but left with the impression they wanted me to do everything. My brain was on different meds at the time and I already couldn’t think straight, so I just didn’t go back. I found a half dozen rationalizations. There are always a few good ones laying around.

Then a few weeks ago a student wrote saying he knows the paper is very late but he decided to write about “School Shootings,” and he just doesn’t know where to start. I explained what all writing teachers do: you’re trying to write about a massive topic–no one could do that. You’ll never find the words to get started if you try and tackle too much. You’ve only got room on the pages for a sliver of that topic; how about one aspect of one shooting. Start there, let the paper communicate all you can about one thing instead of skimming the surface about everything and end up only communicating what everyone already knows. Standard lecture about topic choice.

You’re ahead of me on this one, I can tell.

Yes, I drove back to the center and apologized for not being in sooner and explained why–the overwhelming introduction that left me feeling like I could never remember anything. But I was there, and I wanted one task–one. I didn’t want to know just yet what else there is to do. Just let me pick up food or hand it out or clean up afterwards or whatever. Give me a task and let me rebuild my idealism that such seemingly menial efforts all add to the bigger picture, which IS the ideal: To feed everyone.

I am out of the ditch. But I learned something I had forgotten over the course of four decades–those ditches are packed with people who don’t know how to get themselves back on their own two feet again.

The poster had the answer all along. It doesn’t instruct how to revamp the agricultural system; it doesn’t suggest massive movements of crops. It says, simply, “Ending world hunger starts here: Please don’t waste food.” That’s it. A simple task that at one time I believed might change the world. It will.

“How I’d love to find we have that kind of choice again”

–Harry Chapin.

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