“Why don't you be my guest at the Harvesters' Luncheon and Fashion Show?” Pamela asks me one day. “It’s a charity event, in support of the Second Harvest Food Bank.” And that's how I, the daughter of an itinerant preacher, find myself seated in a lavishly decorated tent in Newport Beach, surrounded by some of Orange County’s most affluent women.
I stare in wide-eyed wonderment at the $500.00 per-ticket meal in front of me. Minnow-sized filet of Chilean Sea Bass, perched on slivers of au gratin potatoes. A side dish of asparagus—three pencil-thin spears, to be exact. My stomach growls, and I’m embarrassed. No doubt, my cheeks are as red as the discount stickers on the bottoms of my new shoes.
The chandelier dims, and a waifish little girl appears on the projection screen, alongside the caption: Do You Know The Face of Hunger? Her clothes are torn, and she stares into the distance with vacant eyes, as if clinging to the hollow safety of her thoughts.
I recognize instantly the world-weary look in her liquid brown eyes, and when she dabs tinted foundation on her brother’s chickenpox blisters so he can take advantage of the school lunch program, my stomach twists with remembered pain. The silk-draped walls disappear, replaced in that moment by sawdust and canvas. I know this girl, I say to myself, I know her story.
I’m writing that story now. Or polishing it, to be more precise, which is why I wheeled my roadster to Second Harvest Food Bank a few weeks back. An abandoned Navy facility, the warehouse has been updated, expanded and refurbished, thanks to charitable individuals and corporations. I am here to watch the video again, and to verify my notes. But I come away with so much more.
As one of the staff members leads me around the warehouse, I am awestruck by the outpouring of generosity represented there. So much nutritious, delicious food in one place...I swear, the little girl in me feels as if her knees might buckle.
I describe for Meredith the hunger I experienced growing up. We relied on government subsidies, I say, like bulgur and cheese. Free lunch tickets and food stamps, which extracted a price we couldn’t always pay. We ate the crumbs off other people’s tables: stale cornflakes and limp vegetables; leftover cornbread, drowned in a sea of powdered milk. Church suppers were wonderful—we feasted on noodle casseroles and layered Jello salads until we fell into a satisfied stupor. And when the occasional Good Samaritan stopped by, we gorged ourselves on preacher’s cake and ‘nana pudding. Feast and famine, that was my story.
Truth be told, I say, the face of hunger haunts me even now. I squirrel away food for a rainy day, eat more than I sometimes should; and though I'm now blessed with abundance, I can’t seem to shake that niggling fear that this next meal might be my last. I see her reflection every single day, mirrored in the faces of my neighbors. Immigrants who huddle near the hardware store, hoping for work; the Vietnam vet who sells oranges near the freeway on-ramp; an entire family, spirited away in the middle of the night because they couldn’t afford their mortgage. I ache for them, and I’m glad Second Harvest makes food available to anyone and everyone--no strings attached, save for the ties that bind us all together.
Funny, isn’t it, how life sometimes brings us full circle? When Meredith asked me to tell my story at Second Harvest’s “No Lunch” Lunch today, I instantly agreed. I'm deeply honored, but truth be told, I'm also a bit frightened. It’s the first time I’ve spoken about all this in public. I’m praying my hands won’t shake, that my voice won't tremble. I want so much to be invisible, to allow “the face of hunger” to take center stage. It's an awareness event, but it's also a fund-raiser. High stakes. I see it as an opportunity to give back to everyone who fed that hungry little girl, a chance to break bread with those who recognize that hunger lives next door, still and always. An outpouring of my heart...from “the least of them,” in gratitude.