Charney/My Turn: Freedom from hunger
Soon after I moved into the house where I live now in Greenfield, I encountered an uninvited guest. She was a small child with a defiant, don’t-mess-with-me attitude. A hand behind her back hid a banana. It had come from the bowl on my kitchen table. I introduced myself. She whispered her name and revealed that she lived in the blue house down the road.
We didn’t mention bananas.
“Are you hungry?” I asked. She nodded. “Do you like PBJ?” I asked. She nodded again. I made her sandwiches, cut up fresh fruit, added a bag of Oreos from the pantry and recruited whatever box drinks I could find in the fridge. I remember thinking I’d have to go shopping again in order to have lunch food for my kids the next day. Still, as she walked away, her two hands holding the big brown paper grocery bag, I felt helpless and sad. It’s not often I come face to face with hunger in the form of a child, although as a classroom teacher, I always kept crackers and a jar of peanut butter in a cabinet next to the crayons and yellow lined paper. Yet, it’s always startling and disturbing. I regret to say that even though I was troubled, I went about my day-to-day business, and I didn’t follow up. A few weeks later, the family had moved and I forgot about it.
I forgot about it until I heard for the first time a true story about our Grandma Sonya, recounted by my cousin Helen from Texas. Our grandparents had fled Russia in 1907 to escape the pogroms, the Czar’s organized massacre of Jews. They arrived, a large immigrant family, with more grit than goods. Our grandfather found work with a relative in Brooklyn, while our grandmother stayed home to raise the children. She never learned to speak English, had an abiding fear of strangers and clung tight to the safety of her home.
Every week, once a week, Grandma Sonya made her rounds, keeping to the known circumference of her neighborhood circuit in the Kings Parkway section of the Bronx. Her familiar rounds consisted of the butcher, the green grocer and the baker. At each stop, she placed her order: the chicken, the chicken fat, the potatoes and the challah bread. And at each stop she paid for two orders. One she took home for her family and the other, well, that was to be given by the butcher or baker to someone in need. “Don’t tell me no names,” she’d say, before she left.
Bubba Sonya’s charity is no more. And my young visitor must be over 20 years old by now. Decades have passed, but hunger remains. If some people in Congress have their way, it will get even worse, certainly if they succeed in cutting $2.5 billion from the food stamps program. Food stamps provide only four additional dollars a day to a family’s food budget and yet that small amount does its bit to reduce, by no means eradicate, “food insecurity.” Government assistance by way of free meals in schools (continued in Greenfield during summer vacations) or WIC, support for pregnant women and infants, is an obvious investment in our children’s futures. A full belly is a pre-requisite to learning.
So here’s the thing I have been thinking. I am proud and grateful for all the things we are doing to alleviate hunger on a local scale. Our community is committed to this issue, including an active food bank, free community meals, church suppers, a school breakfast and lunch program and the newly formed Greenfield Community Farm, which last year, contributed over 12,000 pounds of produce to food pantries and survival centers. This year the yield will be higher.
And I am also angry. I think we all should be angry in defense of the nation’s food programs. Budget-slashing politics will cause increased suffering and force more children to resort to stealing bananas.
Many years ago, Frances Moore Lappe, author of “Diet for a Small Planet,” wrote that freedom from hunger was the first and most basic of our freedoms. Or as Grandma Sonya would have said, “For me and for the hungry. But tell me no names.”
Ruth Charney lives in Greenfield.