My then 10-year-old son, Jonathan, came home from school one day, having noticed the boxes and signs at school asking families to donate canned goods in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, wanting to know where the food went.
“Hungry people,” I told him.
I didn’t want to admit that in a country where everyone could eat, millions don’t. How could I teach compassion alongside this message?
Yet, he had never seen hungry people, except the occasional homeless person in Washington, DC, near our home.
Hunger to a growing 10-year-old boy in an intact family, with both parents working, meant simply that Mom was a little late with dinner that night or that he missed an afternoon snack in his rush to grow to his eventual six feet, three inches.
I chose not to explore how people end up hungry, a combination of making sure not everyone works because we want people to compete for jobs and the puritanical notion inherited from our forebears that it is our duty not to protect people from their own bad choices, when sometimes it is simply bad luck and circumstances.
Total employment is variously considered four to six percent unemployment. That leaves millions left over. In 2010, there were 20 million Americans living in extreme poverty, defined as those with an income half the poverty level, or $10,000 a year to support a family of four. Most are children or the elderly or those with physical or mental disabilities.
Though food stamps, a supplemental food program for women and infants and children up to five and subsidized school lunches help address this population, there are still people who are hungry. How to explain to a 10-year-old that our society has decided it is all right to let some people go hungry?
But, he wasn’t asking for a moral or political discussion. I decided to find out where the cans go to answer his question, so I called the school.
“We don’t know where they go,” the school administrator told me. “Someone calls to tell us what day to have the boxes ready and a truck shows up to take them away.”
“I have a truck,” I told her. “Do you suppose I could help with collection?”
She gave me her contact number. I called, offered my truck, and asked her where the cans ultimately go. “I don’t know,” she answered. She also had a contact number. I went through three or four distribution levels, offering my truck each time, before I found out who was leading the food drive.
After driving boxes of cans to a warehouse that had been donated temporarily for the purpose, I met with someone at the Salvation Army. In response to my curiosity about what happened to the cans next, she offered me a calendar to sign up to sort the cans.
The several nights my son and I put canned vegetables on the shelves for vegetables, fruit with fruit, soup with soup, we were usually the only people there alone. Almost everyone else was with an organized group – Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, church youth groups, companies.
Donations were a mixture of nutritious and festive. The cans of cranberry sauce, olives and pumpkin pie filling were likely meant to light up the day with a traditional Thanksgiving spread.
Hearty soups, stews, vegetables, fruit and canned, ready-to-eat meats were the best. Bags of dried beans would have been a frugal way to make a month’s worth of soups, but they sometimes broke among the sharp-edged cans. And, there was the occasional surprise, like the jar of caviar.
Some schools had sent good wishes along with the food, brightening the box with pretty, plastic greenery for the holiday, or sending cards hand-drawn by schoolchildren to offer greetings for the season.
Late in the month we started bagging. Every bag got several cans from each category – vegetables, soup, fruit, meat, odds and ends of what had been offered. Boxes of dried milk were set aside for families with infants.
Each family, selected by social services for their need, had been given a chit for one bag of groceries, coupons for a free ham and a turkey, and the chance to pick out one toy for each child in the household, donated by local toy stores.
We signed up for distribution day. The line was already long when the doors opened. I don’t know how people got there. The warehouse was in a remote part of the county and not on public transportation that I could see. Most waited in line three or four hours.
One of the volunteers fretted over how long someone was taking to choose a gift for each of her children, sensitive to the long line behind her. “Never mind how long it takes,” I whispered. “This may be the only gift her child receives for Christmas. She is being a good mother to think about it so carefully.”
At the end of the day, as the line eased, I helped one young mother take her bag of groceries out to the parking lot. “I’m sorry to trouble you,” she said, leaning against her old, battered car for support. “I just got out of the hospital yesterday and I’m still weak.”
My heart breaking, I told her, “It’s no trouble at all. I’m happy to be able to help.”
And, that’s where the food goes when you send it in to school. Thank you for asking, Jonathan.
Carol Covin, Granny-Guru