There, but for the grace of God, go I
Much to my mother’s chagrin, I can never remember how to ‘properly’ set a table and where to place forks and knives and all the assorted meal consumption equipment.
This, from elegantwoman.org is still no help
Now that I am older, I have a number of toddling children to coordinate and shepherd to the table, and as a result everything gets placed on the table in a largely haphazard manner. Being young children, much of everything on their plates, including the plates themselves, ends up on the floor. I clean up the mess while my partner gives them a bath and attempts to persuade them not to give a repeat performance with the bath water.
That’s one cheery picture of family meal time, but many different scenarios play out every day around tables in every community great and small in Canada. Often, not so cheery.
How do you set a table for 5500?
For a long time now, March is the month when Food Banks carry out the Hunger Count and share their service numbers with their respective provincial bodies, who in turn share them with the national network, headed up by Food Banks Canada. This March was no different, and later in the year, both bodies will publish a formal report highlighting the state of food insecurity in this country based on this reporting.
What does this have to do with table etiquette?
Well, this March we gave out 2561 food hampers to around 2294 households, or 5515 people, including 757 children five years or younger.
So while many of us were passing the butter or the milk or whatever else was needed at the other side of the dinner table, every day in our community about 250 people were fretting about how to split a box of free food. Some did not have enough to go around and skipped meals, some restricted access to different foods or compromised with cheaper items, others limited portion sizes, or used a variety of other coping strategies. (See the dietitians of Canada for a more comprehensive discussion on pages six and seven.)
Yes, we were able to share food with a lot of people, but March is a good example of the strengths and weaknesses of programs like ours.
Not enough free food, is still not enough food
So, take two people that we served last month, I’ll call them Raul and Cody for the simple reason that those are not their names and they want to remain anonymous.
Raul and his wife came in and filled out the food list we have. They also spent a couple minutes whispering between themselves, trying to figure out how to spell ‘thank you,’ in their second language, along with some of the other needs they had that day.
Next is Cody, who has some serious food restrictions because of medical conditions, which is another way of saying, because of how his body works. Human biology is pretty complex, and while it usually gets along fine, lots of people get pretty uncomfortable when they eat the wrong things. Cody has a combination of food sensitivities and health issues. His choices are therefore massively constrained.
So how well were we able to meet the needs of these two different families?
Our program allocates food that people require for their survival. It would be nice if it was otherwise, but today it is not, and this introduces many difficult negotiations into our daily work.
Annotated food slips
To figure out who gets what, we use a quota system. This is our attempt at fairness, and it’s not perfect. Essentially, it helps us manage what we have so we don’t totally run out half way through a day, or week and shut our doors to the public.
We start each day with a more or less known quantity of food, but we do not know the number of people we will serve. We have a rough idea, but cannot tailor our supply to everyone, or even those who need it the most because we don’t know they’re coming, or in what number. We may run out of different things, we may need to restrict access based on family size, and we may not have the items you really need if you have a restrictive diet.
March was difficult because, while we did have some nice things (whole coconuts, plantains, pluots, apples, mangos and papaya) we didn’t have them the entire month. Some days we had no fresh vegetables and/or fruit and had to restrict quantities vigorously most of the time because demand outstripped supply.
Did I say something wrong?
So, you may have come in March and wondered if some sort of mistake happened once you got your box home and started trying to figure out what to do with the items. Most of the weeks, we did not have a lot to fill the boxes. Looking back on previous experiences here, you may have wondered why today you only received a quarter of what had been there in a previous visit.
So, we were able to share something with Cody and Raul, with help from volunteers, a generous community and a lot of planning and effort, but ultimately, they left our warehouse with many of their requests unmet, for the simple reason that we just didn’t have the items they were looking for.
There will be a good deal of virtual and real ink spilled once the final “Hunger Count Report” is issued later this year, but the solutions can be summarized simply in this way:
Make housing affordable for people on a fixed income, rebuild our social safety net so that no one must choose between staying warm and eating real food, support children and their families (because children aren’t poor, families are) and support job retraining and skills development for those who have the biggest barriers to entering the workforce.
The next time you set a place at your dinner table, consider this last March and families like Raul’s and Cody’s. It’ll give you something to talk about while you pass the mashed potatoes.