Food for Thought
By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
Once upon a time, a long time ago, my family opened our rural home to a boy from the inner city. His father wasn’t around, and his mother got sick and couldn’t care for their six children. The state stepped in decided to place them in foster homes.
A friend told me about the situation and asked if I’d make a home for one of the children. First I said no; then I said I’d have to talk with my family first because the decision would affect them; then, when my friend told me four of the children were sleeping on her living room floor (and she already had six kids of her own), I said there was a spare bed in my nine-year-old son’s room, so I’d care for the ten year old until the social worker found a more long-term placement for him. I was thinking a week, two at most. I went home and presented the plan.
My three kids, a boy and two girls, the oldest of whom was 12, loved the idea. So that afternoon Ben (not his real name) appeared on our doorstep with a paper bag containing a set of underwear and not much else, and a fever blister on his lip the size of a marble. My heart sank; what an unprepossessing little boy he seemed to be.
I registered him for school the next morning. After school, Ben, my children, and I went to town to buy Ben some clothing. We had to park across the street from the store. As we started to cross, Ben reached out and took my son’s hand. Here was this 10-year-old child, who had seen things in his life and his neighborhood that my children, I was thankful, couldn’t dream of. And he was protecting a child one year younger, and an inch or two taller, than he was. The gesture almost broke my heart.
When we got home and the children went outside to play (yes, children used to do that as a matter of course), I told Ben, “Until you know your way around, I want you to look back over your shoulder every few steps and make sure you can still see the house.” Then I said, “We have dinner at six o’clock.”
Six o’clock came. My three were at the table, hands and faces washed. But there was no Ben. I went outside, afraid he’d got lost in the woods, and called his name . He couldn’t have been more than 20 feet away, he was at my side so quickly. “Ben,” I said, “I told you we have dinner at six. Why didn’t you come in?”
It quickly became clear that he didn’t know what it meant to have dinner at six. Or at any time. Never in his life had his family sat down to a meal together. I never felt so dumb as I did when I figured that out.
We’ll get back to that in a moment. But first, here’s the rest of the story of Ben’s time with us.
That evening, after dinner was cleared away and the kitchen clean (my children had jobs to do from the time they were old enough to help out) Ben and my #2 daughter sat down to play jacks. I heard them engaging in the kind of teasing that makes you laugh when the other person says something clever, even it’s insulting and about you. When I was a kid, we used to call it “ranking.” I can’t remember what my kids called it, but they were having fun and I could see Ben was going to fit right in.
Three days later, if the social worker had come to take him away, I would have tried to talk her out if it. By the end of a week if she’d come, I would have gone to court to keep him in our home. That was just as well; I never heard from the social worker for the next 18 months. There just wasn’t enough money to pay social workers, so they were all overworked, and if nobody called in with an emergency, they all had plenty to do putting out fires.
We all just loved Ben, fever blister and all. He grew up with us, graduated from high school with us, went off to college (on an athletic scholarship; he chose a school that didn’t tell him somebody else would take his exams for him because he was such a great athlete – he wanted an education, not glory), and moved to a warmer state as soon as he got his degree. He’d never complained, but it turned out he hated New England winters.
I wanted to tell you about Ben because he enriched our lives in ways I never could have imagined. It’s scary to open yourself to someone whose ethnic and cultural background is so vastly different from your own, but I look back on the learning process we all went through as one of the most glorious experiences I’ve ever had. And my now-middle-aged children would tell you the same, I’m sure.
OK, let’s get back to the dinner thing. It turned out that Ben’s idea of dinner, and breakfast (lunch was at school five days out of seven) was a Hostess Twinkie. With his father out of the picture and his mother overwhelmed – she’d been sick long before anyone who could have helped her noticed – the best she could do was to see they behaved themselves. And that she did beautifully. All six of them were polite and engaging, a delight to be around.
But she couldn’t, and probably didn’t know how to, feed them properly. The oldest boy, in his teens, was obese. The rest weren’t – yet. They didn’t like being in foster homes, even though they were all in the same town and could see each other practically every day. But living in homes where there were regular meals and junk food (I’m not sure we knew that term then) wasn’t part of our lives, the children at least learned something about nutrition. I can’t be sure, but they may have avoided overweight and its frequent companion diabetes.
What prompted me to tell you about the first-day six o’clock dinner misunderstanding is an article in the business section, of all places, in the New York Times. Written by Hannah Fairfield, its title is “Factory Food,” and it is a brief explanation – really all you need to know – of the horrendous epidemic of overweight, obesity, and diabetes that we see all around us, and perhaps in our own homes, today.
No country has embraced the movement toward commercialized, prepackaged food as much as the United States.
Americans eat 31 percent more packaged food than fresh food, and they consume more packaged food per person than their counterparts in nearly all other countries. A sizable part of the American diet is ready-to-eat meals, like frozen pizzas and microwave dinners, and sweet or salty snack foods.
“Americans tend to graze rather than sit down and eat a full meal, so the food is tailored for convenience,” said Mark Gehlhar, who has studied global food consumer preferences at the Economic Research Service of the Agriculture Department. “And Americans do not seem to be as discerning about quality.
I think you don’t need me to tell you what a diet of fat, salt, and sugar does to the human body, but it never hurts to be reminded that fat, salt, and sugar are the basic ingredients of most processed, packaged foods. They get us hooked, and make us sick.
I hear all the time that people who work two jobs and have little money absolutely must rely on processed foods and fast food restaurants to feed themselves and their children. I wish someone would write a book showing how shopping around the edges of the market, where the fresh foods are, isn’t more expensive.
I wish there were some way to make the stores that cater to rich people (I consider myself rich because I can eat three times a day and have a home to shelter me) open stores selling fresh food in the inner city where all you can buy now is packaged food.
I want that book to show how you can prepare meals from scratch with a bit of planning and an hour or two each week cooking some things halfway, so they can be reheated at mealtime.
If no one else will do it, I may have to. But there are thousands of cookbook writers and nutritionists who could do a better job than I can, and faster, too, because they wouldn’t have to do as much research as I would.
The article ends with a comparison of Japanese and European consumption of prepared foods.
The Japanese eat a large amount of packaged frozen seafood, but it undergoes very little processing and has few chemical additives. Some Europeans eat a similar amount of packaged food per capita as Americans, but much of it is bakery bread and dairy products, rather than things like frozen toaster pastries and artificial nondairy creamer.
When Ben came to us, his diet had been compromised because of family misfortune. Nowadays, grabbing food on the go, grazing, eating junk is a way of life for most Americans, not just an unfortunate few.
Think of this as food for thought.