The most humbling part of working in a nonprofit is the constant reminder of how much I still have to learn. You would think that almost 20 years of working in youth development, disaster relief, child abuse and neglect, health services, and humanitarian causes would have filled my brain with every possible understanding of how our community functions. Alas, becoming the executive director at Blessings in a Backpack has taken its place as yet another Yoda to the stumbling Luke Skywalker apprentice I still find myself to be.
I thought I understood food insecurity years ago when I gathered three teen boys from our youth center to prepare a batch of brownies for our charity bake sale. They put up a fight as I dragged them toward the mixers, speaking in lingo I found hard to conjugate with my aging, out-of-touch brain. However, I did decipher that they felt that an apron was like a dress “tbh” but brownies “went hard” for real, no cap. I nodded, obviously clueless.
As we cracked open eggs, one of them suddenly exclaimed, “So this is what an egg looks like inside!” Pure astonishment. I thought this was a youthful expression of sarcasm (That I do get. Usually.), so I laughed until I met his eyes and saw his amazement was completely authentic. “You’ve seen the inside of an egg before,” I assured him.
He shook his head hard. The other two followed suit, equally impressed at the golden yolk slipping from its casing. “What about when your mom makes breakfast?” I asked. “We don’t have a stove.”
Another boy chimed in, “We don’t have a microwave. We do cereal.” All three began a convo about how usually it was cereal without milk, but that Cinnamon Toast Crunch “hits without it.”
That afternoon of baking gave me a crash course in understanding the kids we served, a very small glimpse into how different their lives were in more ways than I had imagined. It was thanks to them that over the years I was able to remind our community that not everyone had the luxuries we take for granted, the tools to make food or the knowledge of how to do it.
There are several causes that address these issues (and they are very worthy), but I also wanted to ensure that these children I regularly saw struggle were still fed. To make one thing clear (because people love to assume a reminder of reality is an attack on progression), I absolutely love programs that do perishable products to promote a healthier lifestyle with true cooking instruction. I advocate, support, throw a party in their honor, love ’em.
However, I cannot state strongly enough how important it is that we also remember the kids who do not have this option yet in their day-to-day existence. Because I almost forgot about them.
I had been out of the hunger and nutrition part for years when I was handed a Blessings Bag from Blessings in a Backpack. These are given out in select schools in Fort Wayne every Friday, ensuring kids had supplemental food to eat over the weekend. I turned it over in my hands, critical of what I saw before me. These were all ready-to-eat, right-from-the-bag food, and although I knew the bag was created by a nutritionist, I questioned why there was no “hot meal” option. Soup, skillet packs, macaroni and cheese … anyone can make those, right?
The response from teachers, administrators, those who worked and knew, once again humbled me:
“Some of these kids are as young as 5 and are not old enough to be unsupervised at a stove.”
“A parent providing basic needs isn’t always one who is able to create a meal or to help a child do it.”
“Many houses lack running water, electricity for even basic additions needed.”
“Ranges and microwaves are still luxuries that many of our families can’t afford.”
I remembered then; I’m ashamed that I could have ever forgotten. Those sweet boys had grown up, but their situations are far from evolved in our community when it comes to food insecurity. We cannot forget that among us, in our own ZIP codes, there are still so many who struggle with basic necessities that most of us take for granted to be afforded to all. I ask that in all of our abundant privilege, we are reminded of their existence.
Is there a place for collaboration to help remedy this? Yes, always. I believe everyone has their piece in the fight against hunger, from food pantries to assistance programs to education on nutrition and health.
Everyone can play a part, and this is how we play ours at Blessings in a Backpack. All these years of work, and yet I’m so far from Jedi status. But again … it’s humbling to remember why.