Food Distribution to the Needy?

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This picture of Kennedy on the campaign trail in my hometown of Omar, West Virginia, was not chosen for the Life Magazine spread “JFK on the Campaign Trail” because it was not glamorous.

Aware that we are blessed with much, my husband and I have been trying to make time in our schedules to volunteer more.  On Saturday for the first time, we joined a group from our church at the Maryland Food Bank, an organization that last year, according to its web site, “distributed more than 26.5 million pounds of food through a network of 600 soup kitchens, pantries and shelters across the state.”

The Food Bank had one paid employee who directed us as we worked in a massive warehouse in Baltimore.  Some of us unboxed huge pallets of food and other goods discarded by the state’s grocery stores while others, stationed around a giant conveyor belt, pulled similar items and boxed and labeled them.  To give you an idea of the magnitude of the operation, I was in charge only of tomatoes—crushed, diced, whole—while the person next to me was in charge of tomato sauces.

At times I busily snatched can after can, though the paid employee told me to relax—that if I didn’t get them, they would come around again.  At other times I stood and watched, amazed at some of the items that passed in front of me—dozens of bags of Lindt chocolates and a jar of expensive face cream.  Once we got the hang of it, we were able to laugh and talk as we worked.

When we finished three hours later, ten of us went to an Indian restaurant for the lunch buffet, all of us hungry after watching a seemingly endless supply of food pass by us for three hours.  And as I always do at a buffet, I ate too much and gave little thought to the hungry people who would be the recipients of our efforts at the Food Bank.

I’ve thought a lot about that experience in the past two days.  As a four-year-old, I was on the receiving end of donated food.  My father was laid off from his job as a coal miner, and he spent several months looking for work.  I remember my mother finding as many different ways as she could to cook five-pound blocks of what she called “government bologna and cheese.”

And though I’m certain I only remember the actual event from stories I heard, I can close my eyes and see a montage of images of Senator John Kennedy’s campaign visits to southern West Virginia and his astonishment at the depth of the poverty there.  On April 25, 1960, he stood on a bar stool and spoke from a platform in front of Shaheen’s Super Store, the only grocery store in the small town of Omar, where I spent the first seven years of my childhood.

I’ve read enough about Kennedy to know that those moments were a turning point for him—not just for his campaign but for his own insight into a world about which he knew almost nothing.  As a child of privilege, he had learned from his mother and his church that he had a responsibility to care for the least among us.  But after that campaign tour, he began to pepper his speeches with various paraphrases of Jesus’ words in the parable of the faithful servant: “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required…” (Luke 12: 48b, NRSV).

In fact, Kennedy’s first executive order as president was Executive Order 10914, “Providing for an expanded program of food distribution to needy families.”  And last year, on the 50th anniversary of his assassination, the newspapers in West Virginia were filled with reminiscences by people who still revere him for his efforts on behalf of the poor and the hungry.

A president’s first executive order is often more symbol than substance, but it does say something about what is important to him (and I hope, one day, to her).  In the years since, here are the first orders that presidents have signed: Johnson closed government agencies for Kennedy’s funeral, Reagan ordered the decontrol of oil and petroleum products, George H.W. Bush created a commission to reform federal ethics laws, Clinton required appointees to sign a pledge not to lobby for five years after leaving (and revoked the order just before he left office), George W. Bush outlined agency responsibilities for faith-based initiatives, and Barack Obama established policies and procedures for the assertion of executive privilege.

No president since Kennedy has had such an immediate impact on the lives of our citizens most in need.  And, in fact, feeding the poor and the hungry has more and more been left up to faith communities and nonprofits.

I am an individual to whom much has been given, and I often feel guilty for having so much and overwhelmed at the magnitude of what is required of me.  I try to remind myself that when the disciples chided Jesus for allowing his feet to be anointed with expensive ointment at a cost that could have fed many hungry people, he famously responded that the poor will always be with us (Matthew 26).  So how do I balance enjoying the fruits of my own hard work and the needs of those who don’t have what I have?

I know that I can’t just say I’ve worked hard for what I have and ignore the misery of others.  My coal miner father also worked hard, and so do many of the people in this country who are living in poverty.  And, yes, there are some people who don’t work hard and who take advantage of the system, and we need a way of addressing that.

But I’m reminded of President Kennedy’s prophetic words in his inaugural address:

All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.

The remainder of that verse from the parable—the part that Kennedy did not quote, is this: “and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more” (Luke 12: 48b, NRSV).  More and more is asked of us, and it could become debilitating if we don’t remember that it’s okay to enjoy our gifts.  But I can do both—enjoy the fruits of my labors and serve others who haven’t been so blessed.

I can begin.  And I can cast my vote for the next candidates who go into those states that will award them few electoral votes and come out changed—and believing that it’s important to begin.

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