Saturday, February 17, 2007

Thanks and Giving

It had been less than 24 hours since we’d finished unpacking from our trip to Minneapolis, and here we were, repacking the unfathomable, ridiculously immense pile of stuff necessary for our five-day trip to St. Louis. I paused to consider this pile that was stretching skyward and wondered how two adults, a three-year-old, and a one-year-old could possibly need this much. I shrugged it off, acknowledging that “madness” is quite likely the most appropriate term to describe not only holidays in 21st century America but, quite possibly, 21st century America period.

Our small station wagon was hopelessly claustrophobic as the four of us, surrounded by the scores of keep-the-children-fed-and-entertained-at-all-costs supplies, wound our way through the six-and-one-half-hour journey southward. Other than two straight hours of screaming by our three-year-old in a not-so-subtle attempt to wake the one year old, it was a relatively pleasant, albeit challenging, drive.

Like most things in our 21st century American lives, our holidays have changed. Other than Christmas, Thanksgiving has arguably undergone the most significant metamorphosis. Christmas has changed from a celebration of the birth of Christ into, for many, a consumer driven abyss. Thanksgiving has little to do, sadly, with giving thanks, and much more to do with the voracious consumption of an unlucky pig, turkey, duck, or some grisly combination of all three. And, of course, watching football and preparing for Black Friday (otherwise known as “The Biggest Shopping Day of the Year”).

****

One needn’t look far, regardless of where one lives, to witness the devastating horror of hunger. There are the well-known statistics: Almost a billion people on earth are hungry. Sixteen thousand children die from hunger related causes every single day (6 million per year). There are the less known statistics: 54 nations (most in sub-Saharan Africa) do not produce enough food to feed their population. In the United States, almost 40 million Americans, including 14 million children, are insecure about sufficient food at any given time.

We have seen the media-provided images of starvation from other countries; we have read the news about huge increases in food pantry usage in the U.S. over the last several years (America’s Second Harvest reports that emergency food assistance increased 8% between 2001 and 2004, up to 25 million people per year). In the most resource-rich, open-market, global-community based existence in human history, one must wonder how it is possible we have made so little progress.

***

I am a vegetarian, and have been for almost seventeen years. I am a vegetarian for a number of reasons, but as the holiday season rolls around, it gives me pause to stop and remember some of the bigger ones: those pertaining to equality, hunger, and sustainability.

Animals raised for food are fed more than 70% of the grains that the U.S. produces. It takes 22 pounds of grain to produce a single pound of meat. The Earth’s meat animals, alone, consume food equivalent to the caloric needs of nine billion people. Some studies estimate that the world produces, currently, enough vegetarian food to feed 15 billion people. 1.4 billion people could be fed with the grain and soybeans we feed U.S. cattle alone.

Food distribution logistics and political in-fighting can explain a portion of this problem, but cannot be held solely responsible. In fact, as we move more quickly toward a free-trade, open-market, the-world-is-flat economy, where most experts agree that the old barriers to the movement of goods and services no longer exist, it is increasingly misleading, or at least ignorant, to use this argument.

Or, perhaps, it is merely more convenient.

***

I enjoyed two days at home sandwiched between my trip to Minneapolis and St Louis. On the second of them, the day before leaving, I received an email from one.org, an organization dedicated to the eradication of hunger, poverty, and AIDS. I am a member because, while this global plight often seems so astonishingly overwhelming that many of us choose to ignore it, there is simply no excuse, given the vast quantity of resources currently consumed and wasted on this planet, that humans have yet to attack this issue with the vigor applied to war, weapons development, or the search for oil.

The email called for a Thanksgiving fast to raise awareness and consciousness of this reality. If 20 people attended Thanksgiving dinner, three were to sit comfortably at the table feasting on everything. Six were to sit in uncomfortable chairs, eating rice and beans with a spoon. And nine were to sit on mats, eating rice with their fingers. I needn’t explain the symbolism behind this approach.

I perform a water-fast twice a year, for four to seven days each, in order to remind myself how fortunate I am to have enjoyed a lifetime of worry-free access to unlimited food. One in six people on earth, approximately one billion people, do not. Because of this experience, I immediately appreciate the significance of this simple idea from one.org.

At the same time, I knew that the idea was unlikely to be embraced warmly by my family, despite their very real understanding and concern about all of these issues. Instead of trying to persuade them, I decided to conjure an alternative. My semi-annual fast is usually a quiet event, practiced with little fanfare unless it cannot be avoided. It is an internal act more than an external statement. More like deep breathing, less like full-bore protest. But it works for me. Despite being in my tenth year of fasting, I do not ever break fast without a renewed appreciation for food, a simple thing that most of us, including myself, often take for granted.

This time, however, a water fast seemed insufficient. So, somewhere in the midst of this six-hour drive to St. Louis, I decided what I was going to do. I would spend the entire day with my family cooking and serving and watching football. And I’d not eat or drink a single thing – between dinner the night before and breakfast the morning after (a morning, by the way, my family prefers to celebrate as buy-nothing day rather than Black Friday).


I knew my grandmother would appreciate what I was doing but would not be happy about it. So, on Thanksgiving morning, I asked my parents and wife to not mention anything to my grandmother. I wasn’t sure how I’d break the news, but wanted to stall for as long as humanly possible.

Somehow, I managed to get through breakfast unscathed. Perhaps it was the ridiculous feast that was rolling towards us like a slow avalanche, but breakfast was eaten on the fly. No one even noticed that I didn’t partake. There was no such thing as lunch, in the traditional sense. In the modern holiday sense, it was exactly what one would expect. Lunch consisted of 15 mini-courses scattered throughout the afternoon: a handful of this, a piece of that, a couple bites of this, a quick snack of that. Again, it was relatively simple to slip through this world unnoticed.

Meanwhile, throughout it all, we cooked. It was already decided that this Thanksgiving would be a vegetarian one. I was very proud of my turkey-craving family for their sacrifice. Going vegetarian, of course, is quite different than going hungry. We had green bean casserole, a tofurkey, gravy, potatoes, sweet potatoes, homemade stuffing, salad, pumpkin pie, wine, beer, and lots of other goodies. I was in the kitchen the entire time – cooking, stirring, preparing, baking, mixing, and smelling. Everything the holiday cook would normally do, except tasting.

Despite all my experience, this wasn’t easy. Football was on in the background, snacks were everywhere, and it was Thanksgiving. Parts of me I forgot existed were screaming, “Eat! Eat! Eat!” Eventually, they got desperate: “At least drink some water!” The fast crystallized the magnitude of a reality I was sad, but forced to acknowledge: Thanksgiving really was about food. That was it. Everything else came in a distant second.

Finally, the table was set and the food was being carted in, platter after platter. My mother let it slip, and the secret was out.

I asked my grandmother if she was upset. “How can I be mad when I know why you are doing this? I wish you were eating, but I understand and am proud of you.”

Wow, cool.

***

The next day, my mother and I were in the car together. “It was really hard to eat last night with you fasting. I know you are doing this for yourself, but you really should think about the impact your actions have on others.”

“Mom, I told you to just pretend I was eating.”

“I know, but that didn’t really work. I kept looking at you and seeing your empty plate. And it made it really hard to eat. I still managed to do it, but it was hard.”

“Well, maybe there’s something to that, mom. Maybe it’s okay that it was hard. Because Thanksgiving isn’t really about going without, it’s about appreciating what you have. If you struggled to eat, maybe you thought a little harder about how lucky you were to have the food that you did have. I’m okay with that.”

And so was she.

But really, it’s not just Thanksgiving. It’s every day. Because it is easy to think about a billion people going hungry and decide there’s nothing we can do about it. But the reality is that we can. We can eat lower down the food chain and demand more sustainable agriculture. We can demand that our elected officials take this humanitarian crisis seriously. And we can stop, even for a second, and think about how fortunate we are to live in a time where we don’t have to worry about access to food, and where we can actually do something to help those who do.

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