Of all the chores, I loathe grocery shopping the most. There are just so many steps involved—making a list (which involves a check of the fridge, the cabinets, and the calendar), pushing a heavy cart up and down aisles (and inevitably, all the way back to the produce section from the freezer aisle when I realize I forgot onions), then coming home and putting everything away (including washing the grapes and taking various snack foods out of their boxes to go into the plastic bins in our cabinets). It's sad how often I come home from grocery shopping late in the afternoon, and end up ordering pizza for dinner—despite the full refrigerator—because I'm so wiped out from getting the groceries that I no longer have energy to cook any of them. And of course, every shopping trip ends with my realization, as I unpack the last bag, that I forgot something vital.
Preoccupied with how much I hate grocery shopping and the frustrations of feeding three kids who each have their own strong and frequently voiced opinions on what foods they do and don't like, I can forget what a profound luxury it is to have enough food to feed my family, all the time.
A New York Times article on the people affected by cuts to the federal food stamps program left me convicted—that's the only word that feels right—of my responsibility to help those who loathe grocery shopping not merely because it's time-consuming and tiring, but because they cannot afford enough food to feed themselves or their children.
The budget cuts mean that individuals and families receiving food stamps are getting $10, $20, $30 less per month. Such amounts seem modest when I compare them with my monthly grocery expenses, but given that many food stamp recipients are already on fixed incomes from Social Security or disability payments, or work for low hourly wages, those amounts equal a significant percentage of families' monthly food bills. The Times article interviewed one man who, as of last week, only had $5 worth of food stamps left for the month, and a mother who buys her daughter's favorite foods and forgoes her own because, she said, as an adult she can handle hunger better than her daughter can.
We at St. James's have made feeding programs a cornerstone of our outreach efforts, and for good reason. The consequences of never having enough to eat, or never having enough healthy food to eat, go beyond hunger pangs to affect mood, energy, and long-term physical and mental health. Preparing and sharing meals are also fundamental activities that bind people together in families and communities. No wonder so many Biblical stories have food at their center—God giving the Israelites manna in the wilderness, the loaves and fishes, the last supper, and Jesus eating a breakfast of fish on the beach with his friends after his resurrection.
I began writing and fleshing out this post before hearing Bob's sermon on Sunday, in which he focused on our feeding ministries and how we might expand and deepen them. He asked us to consider how much we could do in our local community if everyone who worships at St. James's brought a few cans or boxes of food with us every Sunday to donate to the West Hartford Food Pantry. That Bob preached that sermon the same weekend I planned to write this post encouraging a deeper commitment to those who are hungry, particularly those for whom federal food stamp cuts are a huge and daily concern, makes me think that our message is ultimately coming from someone other than me and him.
After reading the Times article, I made a decision. I may loathe grocery shopping, but I must do it. And as long as I'm doing it, I will commit to buying at least one thing for the West Hartford Food Pantry every time I buy food for my own family. If I pick up a box of Honey Nut Cheerios for my family, I'll pick up a second for the food pantry. If pasta sauce is on sale this week but I don't need any, I'll buy a few jars for someone else. Until now, I've been haphazard in my food donations. I walk into the church cloister, see the wagon waiting to receive food donations, and think, "Oh yeah, I need to do that." Now, I'm going to actually do it. Every time I shop.
Besides giving to the food pantry through St. James's, we can help feed our neighbors by donating food to the Hartford Catholic Worker for their neighbors in the North End, or giving money to Foodshare or local charities with food pantries. Whatever we do, I think it's important that our efforts be consistent and regular. Years ago, I worked for an Episcopal social service agency in D.C. with a food pantry. We got plenty of food during the food-focused holiday season. But come March, and especially come July, our shelves were far emptier. Seasonal dishes may be lighter and healthier in the summer compared with the holidays, but empty bellies are just as painful.
The miracle of the loaves and fishes is sometimes interpreted as a parable about sharing. Jesus didn't perform a miracle—some kind of magic trick— to allow two fish and five loaves to feed thousands. The miracle was that, when the gathered multitudes saw a boy offer his meager provisions willingly to Jesus and his friends, others opened their sacks and pouches to see what bits of sustenance they too might share. When everyone gave something, even just a little, the crowd had enough to feed everyone, with leftovers.
If we all committed to remembering hungry people every time we buy groceries for our families, write our monthly checks to charities, or tell our elected representatives what we see as budgetary priorities, how might we see the miracle of the loaves and fishes embodied right here, in our greater Hartford community? How might we ease the burden of those trying to feed themselves and their families on dwindling food stamps? On Sunday, as we listened to Bob preach, my husband Daniel leaned over and said, "I wonder what would happen if we put larger food collection bins in the cloister. Would people fill them?" I think the answer might be yes.
Ellen Painter Dollar is a professional writer and member of St. James’s Episcopal Church. She blogs for St. James’s every Monday, offering reflections on current events, family life, and parish life.