Why in this public health crisis are there many whose first thought each day is not “How do I keep safe in a pandemic?” But rather “How will I eat today?”
It was January, bitterly cold, and I was walking in Harvard Square planning to dash into one of the small markets which sells ready-made sandwiches and food on a buffet style hot bar. Sitting just outside the front door, a guy I presumed to be homeless asking for money for food. Typically, I would have just paused to put some money into his cup. But, on this day I stopped and offered to go inside to buy him a meal. He wanted hot food — who wouldn’t on that cold day?
When I brought the plate outside, he thanked me profusely and I went on about my business. Agonizing, once again, about the one in eleven Massachusetts citizens, like him, who did not know where their next meal was coming from — what the experts call food insecure.
Never would I have imagined that just three months later, there would be a shocking number of additional people added to that group. Parents trying to feed their children, older people hoping to fill empty cupboards, young students needing access to free breakfast and lunch. And I’m alarmed by the Depression era scenes of the long lines of Americans so desperate for food that they wait hours until food pantries open. Feeding America, the largest hunger relief organization in the U.S., reported that before the coronavirus there were 37 million hungry Americans. But the organization predicts now there will be 17 million more.
COVID-19 has revealed the last resort social safety net is less sturdy webbing, and rather an unreliable patchy weak framework. Recent rule changes under the Trump administration have made it harder for certain of the low income and food insecure to qualify for federal food programs. In fact, a big point of debate about the CARES Act was an attempt by mostly Democratic lawmakers to expand eligibility for families in obvious need of more access to food. Families who’d been kicked out of the food stamp program now known as SNAP or the program known as WIC — Women, Infants and Children — providing food for families at or below the poverty line.
I’m sickened by an inefficient food supply chain which has forced farmers to throw away or destroy vegetables and milk. And I’m grateful for the chefs who are cooking and distributing meals, for the many volunteers at food banks and pantries boxing up and handing out bags of food in communities across the nation. Massachusetts volunteer Rene Cook told the Boston Globe, “It’s the least I can do.”
And I wonder if some who had little empathy, and even contempt, for those who used food banks to survive before, will see them differently today? Hard to believe, but I’ve had a lot of heated discussions with people I would have expected to have compassion and to know that most pre-COVID-19 food bank patrons were working. Now, an overwhelming number of the first-time visitors to food pantries have lost their jobs.
It’s sobering to think that in a matter of days someone who used to donate food is now the recipient of others generosity. In the play, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” mentally troubled Blanche Du Bois, speaks these memorable words to a doctor who’s come to take her to a mental institution.
“Whoever you are, I’ve always relied on the kindness of strangers.”
How morally unbalanced are we that while we live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, hungry citizens have to rely on the kindness of strangers? But in the reality of this upside down moment, we who are able to give are called to be kind strangers. One meal at a time.