Did your parents ever say this to you, “finish your food, there’s starving people that would love to get what you do” or “There’s starving people in Africa”?
When I had kids I vowed not to say those things to them if they refused to eat. However, as time passed and my oldest became a picky eater, and I felt those same words on the tip of my tongue. I’m pretty relaxed about dinner time at my house, but I’m not fond of wasting food, and watching my kids waste food bothers me. I wasn’t sure how to address food waste with them without using the dreaded phrase “there are people starving”.
It turns out that having a bumper crop of lettuce was all I needed.
One spring I found myself up to my ears in lettuce and kale, way more than my family could eat. I already bombarded my friends with vegetables. Through a website called Ample Harvest, I discovered that many food pantries and shelters will take donated garden vegetables. Perfect! I had my 8-year-old son assist me with loading the car with produce and accompany me to a local food pantry.
On our way, I explained to him where we were going. I could tell that “food pantry” didn’t mean anything to him. When we pulled up, it looked like a normal warehouse building. We entered through the back entrance and ran into some volunteers. They were happy to see our fresh produce. The pantry director was helping to sort out the donations and offered to give us a tour.
He immediately brought our donations to the produce baskets out front where the recipients “shop” for their food. I stifled my shock; the produce in the baskets was terrible. They were blemished and borderline spoiled. The director also showed us the other donations that were dropped off that day; it was prepackaged food and some over-ripened produce. He told us that it’s a luxury to get good looking produce from local gardeners to share. My son was quiet during the whole tour, however, I could tell he had dozens of questions forming in his head.
When we go back into the car he asked, “Mommy, why do they give people rotten vegetables?” I explained to him that they are not rotten, just over-ripe. I continued to go into detail about how grocery stores donate things they can’t sell to food pantries to give to people who cannot afford to buy food.
“Well, why would they want to eat food that looks like that?” he asked. I explained that sometimes they didn’t have a choice. They are hungry and need something to eat.
He sat in silence the whole way home.
Most of the food donated to food pantries come from grocery stores. They donate damaged or close to expired products. Even food drives run by schools or churches often only get expired food or junk food. According to experts, the high rate of obesity in low-income population goes hand in hand due to low nutrition, high calorie food that’s inexpensive and readily available in food pantries. Fresh, great looking produce is almost never donated to food pantries.
My kids have seen homeless people before. They stared in interest, not really comprehending that these people have no place to live.
The people my son saw at the food pantry didn’t look homeless. Many look like any average person you saw on the street.
My son did ask if they are poor, why did some of the people have cars? I told him that some of the recipients do work, they just don’t make enough money to buy enough food to feed their families. He asked why they didn’t just garden like we did. I told him that they probably don’t have a home that belongs to them so that they can make a garden. I let him process that for a while.
Prior to our initial food pantry visit, my son was mildly interested in gardening. He helps more now, knowing that someone in need counts on us.
After that initial visit, I noticed he would take less at dinner time. I didn’t ask him why. He’s a very thoughtful child and things weigh heavily on his mind. I knew he was thinking about the over ripe vegetables he saw at the food pantry all week. The next visit to the pantry, he made it a point to let the director know that the vegetables we brought were picked that morning and fresh. The pantry director beamed at him and thanked him. My son walked out proudly. In the car he told me he was glad that the people at the food pantry will get some fresh vegetables instead of the over-ripe ones.
We visit the food pantry about twice a month now and sometimes more when we have a lot of vegetables coming out of the garden. We even expanded the garden with dedicated plots for donation.
Can I say that taking him to the food pantry has made him a new person? No. But it has made him aware of what he has and what others do not. I don’t take him there to teach him a lesson, or show him how good he has it. I had extra salad greens I did not want to waste.
I’m glad the produce that we donate from our garden goes to good use. I am ecstatic that this experience has shown my son what it’s like to give and it’s rubbing off on my younger son. He’s eager to garden to help others and that’s a start.
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