Our son Texil was born while Michelle and I were working our way through college. Michelle had just completed an unpaid internship, and I was going to school during the day and working late nights and weekends at a smoky (and very illegal) Beach Bingo. When Kali was born, Michelle left her job to stay home with the kids for the first few months while I went to graduate school and taught freshman English as a graduate assistant. During both of these times money was very tight, and both times we took advantage of a federal food asistance program called WIC (Women, Infant & Children), that allows expectant mothers and mothers with small children to receive a certain amount of free formula, milk, and cereal every month. It was very helpful, and we were very thankful for it.
During that spring semester I taught two courses in Research Writing, and incorporated into the curriculum a service learning component. Students would pick an issue and then go about their research in the usual ways, going to the library and searching the internet. Then they were required to volunteer with non-profit organizations whose mission was to address that issue. This approach balanced the information gained through traditional research with their insights from personal experience, and challenged many of their stereotypes and preconceived notions with real lives and real situations.
I volunteered as well, at the local Food Bank. Every Friday I would drive down to the small warehouse and work alongside an older gentleman and his rotating crew of one or two teenagers performing their court appointed community service. We spent our time together sorting food that had been donated.
Four things stick out in my mind from my work there. The first is that most of the "juvenile delinquents" I worked with were really good kids; they had just had poor parenting and had made some bad decisions. The second is the disgusting amount of the donated "food" that was candy! ("Kids, your breakfast is ready." "Aww, Moooommmm, Twizzlers again!") The third was learning that most people who come to food pantries and soup kitchens are not alcoholic, homeless old men, but women with children. And the last is that the proposed federal budget for that year called for a reduction in almost every federal food assistance and welfare program.
President Bush came to town that year to give a speech, and I stood at an intersection with a sign as one SUV after another left the stadium, filled with white folks who either scowled or rolled down their window to shout some obscenity at me. I remember looking down at my sign that read, "Budget 2000: Make Hunger a Priority," and being very confused as to the cause of their anger. And then this old lady with white hair stops her car across the intersection, calls me to her and says, "Thank you. I've been working with the hungry all my life." I said, "No ma'am, thank you."