Soul Food

Government-issue meals don’t feed real hunger / Alexis Hauk 06C

Food has a curious way of breaking down barriers. A few days ago, a friend and I went out for breakfast. Because we didn’t want to sit right next to the wind-fraught door, we were placed grudgingly in a section of the deli that was about to close. The wait staff made no attempt to hide their irritation at our inconvenient presence. Then, offhandedly, I asked our tired-looking waitress for Tabasco sauce. Her eyes wavered, then softened.

It turned out she grew up on Avery Island, that salt-domed piece of marshland just west of New Orleans where Tabasco is manufactured. After gushing about the Tabasco factory and the mystical process she witnessed that combines peppers, vinegar, and salt into red perfection, she patted me on the back warmly: “You’re just like me. I need to put that stuff on everything.” We were suddenly humbled by our commonality.

Nowhere in my memory has the power of nourishment been so precisely evinced than in my work at a community core in South Fulton called Emmaus House, where for two years I taught kids at summer camp. I initially categorized the
neighborhood of Peoplestown as desolate and depressing, because it was marked by poverty I had never seen up close. Now, I know the neighborhood for its resourcefulness, creativity, and fortitude in the face of what Furquan Muhammad, the imam of Peoplestown’s Masjid and a prison chaplain, terms a pervasive, “thick” institutional ignorance.

Starting in June, kids who qualify for free lunch arrive at Emmaus House camp every weekday. Sometimes they are subjected to math problems or quizzes, so it can feel like school, although they also are taken to the movies and, once, to Six Flags. Mainly, the camp ensures that these children receive two hot meals a day, all summer long.

During the seventh week of camp, “Seventh Heaven,” the kids get bused to the wealthiest northern edges of Atlanta for more active programs, in a space that can better accommodate play.

Most food donations for the week were ill-planned, if nobly intentioned: M&Ms, Skittles, and Oreos, goodies which, when pumped into a hungry six-year-old’s veins, send her into a fluid state of hyperactivity. I began to resent the colorful packages waiting in the kitchen, because they instantly transformed our tranquil room into exigent, sticky-fingered bedlam.

Raven was in my group of eight-year-olds during Seventh Heaven. Outwardly an irascible bully, she was inside a vulnerable, sorrowful little girl with deep insecurities. She quite sanely detested the government meals, which were wrapped in cellophane that was about as palatable as the food it contained; today’s paradigm forces the poor to eat the poorest food and to receive the least sustenance. However, the grumbling in Raven’s stomach when she went on hunger strike the first day made her even more volatile than usual. On Tuesday, in an effort to keep peace, I rummaged around in the pantry and brought back a handful of peanuts, which she gobbled. She wanted only handfuls of peanuts from then on. I soon realized that I couldn’t keep this up because all the other kids had caught on, looking at their own plates of blandness, wondering why I was punishing them.

They also asked me, as I chewed my own more appetizing, homemade lunch, why they had to eat theirs and why I didn’t. It was an unanswerable question. What differentiated my lunch from theirs was complex. I reverted to one of the most frustrating responses from my childhood: “Just because.”

At the end of camp, the kids stay at Camp Mikell in the North Georgia mountains. And for the weeks leading up to the trip, all they can talk about is its food, which features the option of seconds, a cereal bar in the morning, and a salad bar in the evening. Camp cuisine is nothing fancy—hot dogs, pizza, tacos—but for the kids, piling plates high with impossible portions is more enticing than the organized recreation.

After a summer of mandatory government food, day after day of bologna sandwiches, canned fruit salad, pasty mashed potatoes, and mayonnaise-drenched tuna, they are overwhelmed with the magnitude and liberation of true choice





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