The thoughtless act of giving food

 

I flew home to Nebraska last month for Christmas. Since moving to California four years ago, this is the only time of the year when I can see my family. Mom is waiting for me at baggage claim with a scarf in hand. Although completely unnecessary for the 30-second trip to the car, I let her wrap me up in it because I know that being over-motherly is her way of making up for lost time.

The three-hour drive home from the airport is always strange. Mom tells me about the new work schedule her boss at the onion processing plant has enforced — 12-hour days, four times a week, most times through the weekend, “I never have more than a day in a row off anymore. I barely get to see your sister. I wish I could quit.”

The conversation eventually fades to match the pitch darkness of the night, interrupted only by newly built businesses and billboards sticking out against the bleak familiar backdrop of dead cornfields. A Panda Express has replaced an old family diner. It’s a hideous reminder of the time that’s passed since my last visit. A reminder that the place I grew up in has changed, as have I.

Much more than the infrastructure has changed. We get home a few minutes before midnight. I try to be quiet unloading my bags so not to wake up my sister. I fail. Anahi runs up the stairs and jumps into my arms as my mother scolds her for being up so late on a school night. She’s in the third grade.

In my arms, I realize how much heavier Anahi has gotten since last Christmas. I can barely hold her up for more than a few seconds. On our first day together we have breakfast around 10 a.m. Huevos rancheros, hand-made tortillas, fried beans and pan dulce fill the air. At 11:30 a.m, Anahi joins me in the living room with a bowl of ice cream that mom prepared for her. We have lunch at 1 p.m. At 3 p.m, mom brings Anahi a sandwich. An hour later, it’s a bowl of chips with queso. Thirty minutes before dinner, a slice of pizza. An hour after dinner, a bag of popcorn. At 9 p.m., mom returns from the grocery store with a McDonald’s Kids’ Meal. I begin to wonder if this is normal. I figure that maybe mom is just spoiling her for the day to celebrate the start of their vacations.

As it turns out, the excessive feasting was not just a one-day affair. Over the next two weeks, Anahi eats anywhere between five to six full meals a day —with snacks in between each. I wonder if I should say anything to my mom. I worry for my sister’s health and I worry she’ll be bullied in the years to come for her weight . I remember how cruel kids can be. I ultimately decide not to bring it up. I worry mom will take offense. For her, feeding Anahi is an act of love. Just like the scarf at the airport, it’s her way of making up for lost time.  

In the time since I’ve returned from Nebraska, I’ve thought a lot about how we interact with food. Universally, we use food to show affection. When a friend is sick, we offer to bring over soup. On birthdays, we treat people to a nice dinner. And while these are all acts of kindness, I think more thought should be put into what it is that we’re giving and how we’re doing it.

Equating food gifting with affection can blind us from seeing clearly. Perhaps the best example of this is the international food aid system. Since the start of the foreign aid complex at the end of World War II, billions of dollars have gone into providing food for poor countries. While aid in the form of food is appropriate in times of war or natural disaster, the vast majority of food aid has been given to relieve poverty. It’s had the opposite effect.

Within the realm of the foreign aid sector, it is no secret that aid in the form of food is a waste of resources. The United States and other Western countries still directly export a significant portion of the food they give as foreign aid. Food arrives in poverty-stricken communities where a significant portion of the population works in the agricultural sector as farmers and field workers. Poverty, although often tied to hunger, is rarely a result of a lack of food. Instead high poverty levels are a byproduct of stagnant economies and inadequate access to financial capital. So, when these delicate communities are inundated with cheap or free food from the West, local farmers are pushed out of the competition, the local economy is further weakened, and the poverty cycle strengthened. Many prominent leaders in developing countries have spoken up about this break in the food aid system—and yet, most aid organizations continue pushing food aid because of the universal significance that comes with gifting food. And on a more cynical note, providing food for the poor, regardless of how beneficial it is in comparison to other development strategies, makes for good photo-ops and public relations. We’ve all seen a million versions of the same image: Boxes of food being unloaded from the back of trucks into the arms of smiling, starving recipients.

It is undeniable that food brings people together like few other things can. Some of my most cherished memories have taken place around food. But we have a responsibility to put as much thought in how we gift food as we do in the affection that inspires it. The universal endearment innate in gifting food cannot be allowed to blur the line that separates intention from impact, even if it means having uncomfortable phone conversations with your mother on a Sunday night.