Earlier this month, I watched A Place at The Table, a recent documentary about the food crisis in America. As a writer and an eater and an avid home cook, this is a topic I care very much about—I read everything I can get my hands on related to the topic of food.
I'm familiar with America's food deserts, areas where there is little to no fresh produce available. I've read about the frustrating rise in the cost of produce and the simultaneous drop in the cost of processed food, both related directly to food subsidies. I've heard about how food stamps make it all but impossible to choose nutritious options, and how doctors are treating more and more illnesses related to malnutrition. I knew that millions of American kids consume too many calories or not enough nutrients, and I knew that 50 million Americans and one in four American children don't know where their next meal will come from. I've been reading about these numbers and figures and policies for years. I knew this stuff.
What I didn't know: I didn't know that this movie would move me. I didn't know that weeks later I'd still be thinking about it, picturing the faces of the children, very much like my own. I didn't anticipate that as I sliced fruit for my boys one morning, my mind would snap to the stories and faces and voices in the film, and that the fruit in my hand would seem to be accusing me, almost—Why do your children have all the fruit they want while other children in our country starve? I didn't anticipate my anger, and I didn't expect my tears.
My friend Eve told me many years ago that our tears are guides, if we let them be. Our tears can tell us things about ourselves—about our dreams and passions and callings, about our wounds and fears and bruises. Tears tell us the things that we're not quite ready to say out loud, and I've learned along the way to pay close attention to them.
My tears led me to become a writer—a challenging and gratifying way of living, one that shapes and instructs me along the way. My tears led me to run the Chicago Marathon with Team World Vision, even though I'd never run more than three miles in my life, and that journey positively rearranged me, inside and out. My life experience tells me that we must pay attention to our tears.
My dad, who is also my pastor, uses the term "holy discontent," when something riles you up so much that you know you have to do something. When you can't get something out of your mind, when you find yourself working on it all the time like a tongue on a loose tooth.
Whatever the term, I think this is mine. Hunger in America—and globally, certainly—is an urgent issue. And lack of nutrients is only one part of hunger. One of my favorite Chicago chefs was interviewed recently in the Tribune on the topic of violence in our city. Chicago is experiencing a heartbreaking spike in violence these days, and in a conversation about that violence, Rick Bayless turned our attention, as he always does, back to the table.
Hunger is physiological, of course, but it's more than that. When you don't have food, you don't have any reason to gather around the table. In his words, "Meals don't just feed us, they are cultural rituals that civilize us."
This connects with me in such a deep way. The work to be done in this country is not just delivering adequate nutrients to people who need them, although that has to be our first order of business. We have to assure that people have enough food, so that they have something to gather around, so that they can feel the love and connectedness and nourishment—the civility, to use Bayless' word—that we experience when we share meals around the table.
The table is where we connect, where we learn and listen, where we become familiar with the practices of sharing and giving, essential practices in all of life. And if there is no food, there is no reason to gather at the table. We're talking, then, about multiple kinds of hunger, and my tears are telling me loud and clear that part of my calling is to address hunger in its every form.
Shauna Niequist is the author of Bread and Wine, Cold Tangerines, and Bittersweet. She lives outside Chicago with her husband, Aaron, and their sons Henry and Mac, and blogs at www.shaunaniequist.com.
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