Imagine living in a world where each meal you eat might be your only meal for the next two days. Where you must scavenge for anything to get you by so that you can have some slim chance to be able to beat the cycle of poverty to make life better for you and your family. At the beginning of the month, I got to know people who experienced this world every day.
During my spring break I had the opportunity to be a student leader for Catholic Campus Ministry’s trip to Camden, NJ. While in Camden, we worked with DeSales Service Works, a project of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales that provides visitors opportunities for faith-driven community service. Throughout the week, we volunteered with a lot of different organizations, including St. Joseph’s House, The Last Stop, Holy Name School, the Sandwich Ministry, and Hopeworks. We also participated in some local park clean-up and gardening for the community. We had exposure to all different kinds of people and life experiences as we engaged with the Camden locals in our projects to help the community.
This week was incredibly eye-opening as we learned more about the privileges that we did not even realize that we had. On one day after cleaning and sorting at St. Joseph’s House homeless shelter, we had a guided reflection about being homeless and I realized how little control people have on every aspect of their life when they are homeless. Throughout my life, I have had the ability to chose what I eat and to read the ingredients of most foods before I eat them, but for the people who are homeless, they just have to take what they can get. This also goes for finding where they can sleep or finding jobs. These people have limited carrying capacity in their arms, and can only own what they can carry, so even if they get a job interview, it can be hard to get a job if they lack the professional clothing to help them out. And even if a shelter resident is able to get a job and stop relying on service organizations for sustenance, it is hard to provide for your family without first repaying all of your personal debts. Camden is a well-known food dessert with no large grocery stores within the city limit, and most residents rely on bodegas for most of their food. On the first night of our trip, our initial group of five people had the challenge to buy ingredients for dinner for our group of six at the corner bodega with only $4. We made ourselves a can of black beans, a can of carrots, and a bag of rice. But what was only a little fun challenge for us is the life experience of so many city-dwellers who have limited access to fresh foods.
Having my background with food allergy knowledge, it was difficult for me when we were distributing food because there was so little information about the food we served. The soup kitchen at St. Joseph’s Place and the cathedral’s Sandwich Ministry worked solely on donations. These donated casseroles, soups, and desserts had no labels on them and when people asked us what was in the food, we had no real answers except for what we could tell from looking at it (“this is ham and beans”, “this is chili with some meat” “this is pasta with cheese and meat” “this is a brownie”). The most immediate difficulty I saw was for the population at the shelter who did not eat pork. Often, the meat options in dishes like chili or pasta sauces were indiscernible ground meat, and so we had to offer them the vegetarian options which was just pasta with red sauce and canned green beans. This meal is so low in protein and it would be hard to sustain yourself on that for several weeks on end. And for a lot of people who have avoided pork for religious regions for most of their life, if they accidentally eat pork products, their bodies are so unused to it that they will get sick even if they desperately needed to eat that meal. And if these pork-free people struggle so much, I can only imagine this situation for anyone with food allergies. As the population in this country with food allergies grows, the chance that some of these people may end up having to rely on services that provide free meals will increase as well, and we need to prepare to serve this population with the dignity that they deserve. It already takes so much effort to get people to donate food that if we were to require all donated foods to go through an intensive labeling process, even more people might go hungry.
After my experiences with this trip, I opened up my email to see that the sign-up sheet for 2019 FARE Teen Advisory Group projects was open, and I am so excited to be participating in a project that addresses food insecurity for people with food allergies. With the experiences that I have gained over my trip, I feel as though I will be able to help give my team the reality check needed to make sure that our initiatives for food banks will be sustainable after we give them our presentations. I can’t wait to continue the good work from my trip through this new project and if anyone has any ideas for ways that we can improve food labeling and allergy-friendliness of food banks and soup kitchens, be sure to comment below or on my Facebook page.