Saturday, October 10, 2009

Continuing the discussion...on food, families, and being our brother's keeper

I read an interesting article in our newspaper this weekend about a new program here in town. Our school system, in partnership with the area-wide food bank, has just initiated a new program, "Beach Bags" in the elementary schools that serve the most transient and poor families. Every other Friday, school children of these families receive a grocery bag full of donated food which is tucked into the children's backpacks at the end of the day.

According to the article, foods going home to the 200 or so families last Friday included the following: Frosted Flakes cereal, milk, SpaghettiO's, ravioli, peanut butter, applesauce, Cheezits, soup and canned chicken in barbecue sauce.

I think this is a wonderful thing they are doing for poor families. Some of the items are questionable in terms of their overall healthiness, but they are calorie-dense and easily consumed with no real cooking necessary. Considering some of these families literally live in tents at the local campgrounds, this is important. These are sad facts.

The family spotlighted in this article is made up of a mom and dad in their early 30's with a pre-adolescent boy and girl. The father has been out of work for a few months, and the mother does not feel well enough to work, having symptoms that are lupus-like. One of the children has been getting flushed, light-headed and short of breath in p.e. class (which could possibly be asthma or a heart problem), and the other child has asperger's syndrome.

My point in writing this is that while the city's efforts are good, perhaps we all could do better when it comes to creating well-being for ourselves and society. These people are the marginalized, and I don't know why, for sure. But in order to help folks truly improve their lives, we need to start finding out why.

The article states that the father does landscaping work, but has been out of work for a few months. We live in a place that has extensive landscaping of businesses and neighborhoods, and we mow lawns until November, so I think, and I daresay I may be judgmental, that there is an unspoken problem here. The bigger problem, however, is that even if he were employed, rents are too high to sustain a family on a $10 an hour landscaping job almost anywhere in this country. The family had recently been evicted from their apartment, and the parents had slept that first night in their car while their children slept at a friend's home. Someone has stepped up and paid for a week's stay at a hotel, but after that, what?

The aforementioned family has an Anglo-Saxon name, and most likely, are native born and raised. That means the parents were educated in this country and afforded opportunities to further their education through community college or vocational school. They could, most likely, get PEL grants, food stamps, and a host of other means of a leg up. What goes wrong?

You know, I still think as an immigrant would, because I come from that framework. That is why the first question that occurred to me is, "where is the family?". These people didn't just spontaneously generate under a cabbage leaf, so where are the grandparents? Are they dead, estranged, incapable themselves of offering any support or stability? Did they abuse or neglect the children who are now the parents in this article? Were the grandparents incarcerated; were they substance abusers? Are the parents?

I think my ancestors, though quite human and full of problems themselves, had something that so many people seem to be lacking in this age, and that thing is "connections". They were together with their families in the old country, and when they came to this country they were sponsored by family or friends here. New immigrants, whose wealth typically consisted of whatever they could carry over here in the boat with them (usually just a few items of clothing), would form little ethnic neighborhoods which would then establish a church, and get down to the business of improving their lives by hard work, surrounded by those of like background and faith. Faith was the influential moral authority, and functioned like the third parent in these families, whether the parents themselves were devout or not. Even being a nominal member of a faith community ensured that everyone was on the same moral page, that there was biblical consensus on what was expected of civilized people. And church was a major social outlet, as well. This of course was also true of the sponsoring American society at large.

Since a lot of immigrants were from the peasant class, and food in the old country was often not plentiful, they were very used to living on small amounts of the most basic of food. One of the old Italian ladies who lived across the street from my childhood home told me that they would eat greens for breakfast in Italy. Another friend was told by his immigrant father how there was so little meat to be had in Sicily, that as a young boy, in full drama mode, he had once stood at an upstairs window and told his mother, "If you don't feed me some meat, I am going to jump out of this window!"

The mother nonchalantly replied, "Then jump, because there is NO meat".

He did jump, aboard the first ship he could, and came to this country.

So I think that those people who came here on the boat, many of them unable to read and write, were in much better shape than many American-born people are today. Even though at the time there was a language barrier with no "English as a second language" courses taught in school, no welfare, social security, health care or any other government safety net, they often had a supportive network of people, and it was the norm within each family that all who earned a wage would contribute most of their paycheck to meet the household's needs, keeping only a small portion of their pay for themselves. They also had a strong motivation to improve their lives, and beyond that, had very highly evolved life skills. These laid the foundations for a realistic hope and expectation of a brighter future.

They could cook, survive and even thrive on inexpensive foods, they knew how to grow their own food, how to sew and repair their clothing and shoes, and do a myriad of other chores with their highly skilled hands. Many were artisans and craftsmen. Women would also crochet, knit and do lacework (tatting). As an aside, my own grandmother was required by her stepmother to do so much tatting before she was allowed to eat breakfast each morning, that her one of her fingers was smaller than normal and a bit misshapen. Child abuse is nothing new, is it? But a tad bit abusive, or at least neglectful, is our modern day way of teaching children almost nothing at all in terms of hand and life skills.

Of course, the economy was different back then. Rents must have been more affordable (though people were also willing to live in cold-water flats, eight-floor walkups, one or two rooms with a communal bathroom that served several families, etc.) and work abounded for unskilled labor so that people could save and move on to better circumstances. We actually manufactured and produced things in this country and America needed all the factory and menial laborers she could get, so the immigrants played a vital role in pushing all of society forward. If only we could actually do that again, we could stop printing funny money and cure all manner of ills.

So here we are today, with unfortunate people falling through the cracks of society, largely because they have not been made fit for the task of sustaining themselves. My Catholic Christian faith exhorts me to reach out my hands to the poor, to treat the least of us as if they were the Lord Jesus Himself, and to prefer others above myself.

This is what I truly wish to do, but I am frustrated by the well-meaning efforts that still seem to miss the mark because they do not address the underlying problems that people have. Most of the help that we give people is exactly like the food we hand out: it is filling for the moment but not truly satisfying. It is calorie-dense but nutritionally deficient, promoting perhaps the poor health that the poor suffer. That is to say that the help we give meets only part of the need, while in itself promotes more woe.

We are putting people up for a week in a hotel, or providing shelters and government subsidized housing where many are victimized by crime. So what is the answer? What is to be done? Who am I to be asking such huge questions?

I believe there is a learned helplessness and hopelessness pervasive in society today, due to the foregoing issues and the way media has taken over our time and preoccupation. We do not do much that isn't automatic and/or electronically enabled. Our minds are literally taught not to think. The poor are not the only ones in this sad shape. Just consider what you would do without running water, one or two weeks into a natural disaster. It could happen. Would you have thought about catching rainwater off a roof, then boiling and filtering it? I bet that wasn't a thought you would have come up with right away. Because when you turn the faucet on, water always comes out. Beyond that you have some bottled water stowed. But you would have to know what to do if you ran out. Did you also know that after a few days of a power outage, the sewers begin to back up into the toilet. Do you know how to prevent that from happening? What would you do with your own waste in a situation like that? Not very pretty to think about.

Here are some other questions. How much do you depend on your cell phone, the grocery store and the Walmart? What would you do if you lost your job for several months and your unemployment ran out? Or you found yourself without a car? How repugnant is the thought of having to keep your own meat animals, and therefore having to slaughter them and cut them up yourself?

My own children are sometimes put off just by eating food that I grow in the back yard, because knowing that your vegetables were grown in dirt you can see is somehow unappetizing. Another time at a school field trip to a local farm, the second graders were terrified when a couple of free-range chickens showed up at the picnic area. The children shrieked and jumped up on the tables, terrified of these strange "monsters". Seems the kids had no idea of what a chicken is, and probably do not know to this day that those chicken tenders they love are well, from chickens.

Are we so disconnected from reality that we think our food is made from combining the appropriate atoms in some sci-fi synthesizer? Well, the truth may be closer to this than I dare would have thought. Consider what went home in the "Beach Bags" from school.

Let us begin to think about our dependence and our own sustainability. Then let us consider how we might better serve those at the bottom of society, whose ability to sustain themselves is even less than ours. Those still functioning in society are increasingly called upon to be a lifeboat to those who aren't. We need to build bigger and stronger lifeboats, and to teach others how to build their own. Better yet, we need to find a safe harbor, and keep our feet on solid ground.


"Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock." Matthew 7:24-25

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous2:01 AM

    In an earlier time the man who knew landscaping could get work. He may not have any equipment at this time. Years ago though, a friend or most certainly the connected famly would gather together to loan him things and probably worked with him off and on so he could get extra jobs to get ahead. I grew up as you have mentioned with immigrants as most of my famly. They pitched in with whatever was needed,.. be it time, advice or anything els. They helped the next group to be able to come to this land. They had been there and knew what coming to America would be like for the next group. They loved this land and were not afraid to tell anyone. Worked hard and learned the language as fast as possible and became citizens. When wars came they inlisted. Even when it ment fighting their own past countrymen. American was now their home. Faith was their foundation and they held fast to it. It was interwoven in their every day lives for all to see. Back then I saw it to be honest in every home I visited. They still kept their traditions and spoke their native language when together.They loved their "people" but knew the downside of the old country too. You are so right. If they confronted something,they just sat about thinking of ways around the problem...then got to doing it. They knew recycling way before it was politically correct. My regret is not asking them more and not having them here to teach me more...and just to have them here to say thankyou so very much to. It is scary to think so many are so far removed from basic life information if something should happen and they needed to know it. We all need to explain and live a life to our loved ones to pass down these things...inclucing our faith, the love of family and pride in your family. Youb hit on so many more points than I can rely to. Good post! :) Sarah


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