On food culture and scarcity

20190925_134730 (2)My fondest memories from childhood occurred around the dinner table at my grandparents’ house. In this picture taken when I was five years old, I’m visiting our “East Coast relatives” in New York City. My grandfather, a labor activist and steel mill worker, grew up on the Lower East Side, and my grandparents met in Queens, before they eventually migrated to the West Coast.

I remember how my grandfather loved to reminisce about the many diverse foods he missed from his old neighborhood. He’d laugh and slap his knee as he described his own father, a Ukrainian immigrant, peddling fruit on the street corners, calling out: “Apples! Bananas! Pears!”

Most of my own childhood, however, was spent living in an impoverished rural community. I don’t remember feeling hungry, exactly, but looking back, I recognize now that our family was chronically food insecure. Occasionally, we would receive charity boxes, filled with “government cheese” (large orange, rubbery blocks wrapped in plain paper packaging), powdered milk, and brown bread. We often subsisted on food my mother would grow or gain from other local farmers. From grade school on, I was a free hot lunch kid.

After his retirement, my grandfather purchased a small manufactured home on a quarter acre of land, complete with a few fruit trees and space to garden. Dinner was a full-on family affair: a bunch of loud, opinionated relatives gathered around their small table – simple food, stories, and love shared in abundance. I’d always come away from our meals feeling nourished. It’s an experience I’ve sought to replicate in my own family.

0_zTqoGseWjnwJ0GTu_It’s no surprise, perhaps, that I developed a life-long passion for food, from seed to table. My people come from farming villages, and from a rich, messy melting pot of food culture. My grandfather’s giant zucchini patch was the last thing we talked about before he died.

I feel a deep connection to food, one that surpasses urban, regional, and even national boundaries. I’m endlessly fascinated by stories of food – what we know, what we love, which food cultures are erased or centered, who struggles to put meals on the table and how we can address the many root causes of hunger. Food is at the center of our lives, and food holds tremendous potential to connect and to unite us. That’s the heart and soul of The SAVOR Project – food literacy, food stories, food justice.

As we move through the remaining days of this holiday season, can you reflect upon your own history of food abundance and scarcity? Can you recall times when you have been hungry – physically or emotionally, and someone else stepped in to nourish you? Can you honor your own food stories? Can you reach out and lift up other food cultures?

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