by Gwen Frisbie-Fulton
I was groggy this morning as I headed down to High Point, North Carolina, to a pop-up food pantry, and I was worried I wouldn’t find it. I had barely slept, and the directions were written on the back of my hand.
The road was foggy in the way that cool North Carolina July nights evaporate into hot July days. I was squinting at the road, trying to see the building addresses in the morning sun glare. But as I came around the bend, I saw a long line: people holding grocery bags, pull-behind carts, children’s wagons, and taped-together storage tubs.
The tell-tale signs of food distribution in America.
Young men, old men, women with walkers. Mothers with babies and with reluctant teens brought along to carry the boxes.
A young woman shifted from foot to foot, switching her old blue plastic laundry basket from hip to hip impatiently in the heat. An elderly woman stood like a statue behind her, stockinged legs and a string of dime store pearls around her neck, make-up on–stepping out clothes from a bygone era.
And a little boy twirled and twirled and twirled in the lawn next to the line, dizzy and laughing and falling. But each time he fell, he looked up towards the food from where he lay in the grass, studying it, keeping an eye on it, as the volunteers arranged it on rickety church tables, layers of summer camp glitter glue flaking off under the weight of melons and corn.
He would not let the food out of his sight.
One town. One neighborhood. One church. One morning. More than 250 people asking to feed their families for one week. Land of Plenty.
Because in America, not everyone can afford to eat.
Stagnant wages haven’t kept pace with rising rents, $2.40 a gallon gas, crippling health care costs, and for some of us, childcare that takes back half of what we can earn.
For most American families, the math just doesn’t work.
Families are devoting a greater share of their budget to basic needs compared with 30 years ago. In fact, low-income and middle-income households now spend roughly 80 percent of their budget on housing, food, transportation, health care, and clothing.
The other 20 percent is absorbed rather rapidly by the stuff of life: balding tires, broken refrigerators, and those ever-daunting costs of childcare.
When you can’t wiggle your budget, and you can’t add yet another job, food becomes the fall guy.
After all, you can’t pay half the rent or half the light bill, but you can fill your grocery cart up halfway.
Food insecurity in America may not look like what you are looking for.
Unlike images of famine, you will not find children with distended bellies or elderly men so thin their skin looks like it was draped across their bones. Instead, food insecurity in America looks like a mother taking three buses to get to a grocery store that sells produce.
It looks like parents sorting through bills, squabbling in hushed voices, after the children have gone to sleep.
It looks like a father filling his grocery cart with empty calories that will trick a stomach to feel full, even though he knows that his children need more nutritious food than he can afford.
As frequently as not, American food insecurity looks the opposite of famine: obesity is one of the most poignant signs of poverty and nutritional deficiency in America, and it is highly correlated with not having regular access to nutritious food.
Food insecurity is an issue of justice.
It is an issue of stratification, the distribution of wealth, and of corporate greed.
It is an issue of small local farmers being shoved out of the market place, the corporatization and globalization of the food industry, and the resulting environmental devastation.
It is an issue of wages and workplace rights. It is an issue of racial justice and women’s justice.
As I unload cantaloupes from the food bank truck, I study the line and watch a young man get a chair for an elderly lady who has been waiting in the line for too long.
I rub my bleary eyes with the back of my hand, and gulp down the rest of my coffee, which has been sitting on the curb. I need to hurry up.
I feel ashamed that last night I tossed and turned and lost sleep over something so small, so personal, so insignificant as I did. I am ashamed that I wore out my friends’ ears with my complaints and woes.
I am ashamed that I allowed my heart to be hurt when there are so many places it can fly. What better use of a heart than to let it fly towards justice?
This morning, in a cracking church parking lot in High Point, North Carolina, I am reset. I am called back to community.