Good morning, friends and neighbors.
Since the first time I heard it in the retrospectively-awful-yet-beloved Rankin-Bass animation of The Hobbit, this has been one of my favorite quotes in all of literature.
As Thorin, the Dwarven King, lies dying of wounds he sustained in a battle started in part by his own greed and bitterness, he speaks his last words to Bilbo Baggins are:
“Child of the Kindly West… if more of us valued your ways- food and cheer and song above hoarded gold- it would be a merrier world. Sad or merry, I must leave it now. Farewell.”
Whenever things get a bit too dark and heavy in this world, I try to remember that, and I try to do whatever I can to hold back the darkness a little longer.
I write some nice stories. I bake some pastries, and make people smile… and I thank Heaven that there are people in this world with the means and desire to do more than that.
Today is about them.
Back in 2010, an enormous earthquake utterly trashed the island of Haiti. While any number of countries reached out to offer aid to the reeling nation, celebrity chef Jose Andres wanted to go one step further.
Drawing on local talent, international suppliers and connections, he established World Central Kitchen. Not content with just feeding hundreds of thousands of refugees and rescue workers, Andres made his organizations’ aid systemic– creating healthy school lunch programs to help enrollment and feed underprivileged students. He offered cleaner cooking equipment and supplies to households and even provided culinary training to help kickstart careers in hospitality.
Since then, the World Central Kitchen has been… well, all over the world, and providing food and aid to communities under siege from acts of God, the elements, and even a countries own systemic failures- as when WCK was in Washington, D.C. recently feeding furloughed government employees during the recent shutdown.
I brought up the story of Jose Andres and WCK first for a reason.
It’s winter in Portland right now. The promised “snowpocalypse” has (thankfully) only been the week-long rain that Portland is already used to. Snow cripples this city- rain barely slows it down.
That said, it’s still cold, wet, and miserable outside. If it wasn’t for crushing cabin fever (and the fact that an occasional walk in the rain can feel really good), I’d probably spend all my time indoors at home.
Because I have one. A home, that is.
Homelessness is an ongoing, brutal reality here. Gentrification of the city’s lower-rent neighborhoods is displacing people. Miniature tent cities pop up like toadstools. Money is spent on ignoring the problem rather than solving it, and as you walk the streets of Portland- especially around our famous food pods- there is a thin chorus trailing through the hum of lunch hours:
“Hey man, spare a buck for a sandwich or something?”
“‘Scuse me, can you help me get a bite to eat?”
In one of the food capitals of the richest nation on Earth… people are starving, cold, wet, and alone.
The rain of winter in the Pacific Northwest does not care.
“Here Today, Gone Tomorrow”
Like I said, I brought up Jose Andres first for a reason.
Andres established WCK in the belief that food can be an agent of change. This is true not just on the macro level of nations and communities and natural disasters, but on the micro level too. The level of the individual.
When one is thrust into a position of extreme vulnerability, a “scarcity” mindset becomes the norm. This is shown to be the flaw in the famous-but-debunked “marshmallow test.”
In the marshmallow test, a child is offered one marshmallow now, or two after a certain amount of time has passed. The idea of the test is that delaying gratification is an indicator of character strength and success. It’s what one must possess to save money, for example.
What the test DOESN’T take into account is the socio-economic background of the child, and the environment they came from. In a situation where a child is accustomed to plenty, it’s easier to hold off for the time being. If the child is raised in tougher conditions, however- where they can’t always be sure of getting a decent meal- the scarcity mindset is already present. “Take the marshmallow now- no telling if you’ll get it again, and there are no promises you will.”
A mind that’s worried about getting through the next 24 hours ISN’T thinking about saving for the future.
By eliminating even one chunk of uncertainty in someone’s life- where a paycheck will be coming from, ensuring they WILL eat today, a reliable roof over their head- that scarcity mindset can start to break. That person can start imagining- the vital precursor to planning- for the future.
Doing What You Can
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Rami Shapiro, from the Pirkei Avot in “Wisdom of the Jewish Sages” (not directly from the Talmud apparently)
I went through a few personal realignments before joining the culinary industry. I knew I wanted to help people, and the ways I tried to make that happen changed pretty radically. I knew I wanted to save the world.
I learned psychology, I became an EMT and then a nurse’s aide, then finally a baker and writer.
Even so, one person’s reach is limited. Over and over, I learned you can’t save the world on your own.
That doesn’t mean you can’t stop trying…one can ever blame you for doing the best you can. Not everyone can spend hours a week in a soup kitchen or food bank. Not everyone can run out every weekend building houses.
There’s always something you can do, though. Just keep your eyes open.
Even if you don’t always have time to volunteer, or spare food on hand, financial help is almost always welcome.
In researching for this blog, I clicked over to CharityWatch.org, an independent organization that checks out charities and grades them by how effectively they use your money (how much actually goes to programs versus administration, for example, or how effectively they fundraise.)
Below are just some of the charities on the site aimed specifically at hunger. Give wherever you feel (and can.)
- Action Against Hunger
- Feed My Starving Children
- MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger
- One Acre Fund
- City Harvest
- Heifer International