Am I allowed to take free food?
While driving my son to his piano lesson the other morning in a nearby community I noticed a series of signs decorating the median advertising a bike drive at a local church. Maybe they’d have a new bike for my daughter! I loved the idea of grabbing a second hand bike and avoiding sticker shock at the bike store. I decided we would check it out after the piano lesson.
The bike drive was being held just a few blocks away. After his piano lesson I told my son my plan. We left our car in the parking lot and began our walk over to the church. As we rounded the corner onto the correct street I caught glimpses of houses I had never seen before, tucked away behind tall privacy fences. These houses were magnificent, spacious even, with neatly manicured lawns. Almost little castles. They definitely qualified as estates, especially if you could block out the fact that the lots were so small they nearly sat one on top of another as the size of these mini mansions dwarfed their surroundings. Even so, their lawns were about ten times the measly patch of dirt that comprised my front yard.
Coveting property doesn’t hit me too often, but I wanted one of those houses.
My son and I continued on and found the bike drive pretty quickly. A team of about ten or fifteen junior high and high school aged boys was working on a similar number of bicycles. With wrenches cranking and bike pumps inflating tires, they seemed off to a productive start already. The kids themselves looked a bit sleepy, perhaps there a little begrudgingly, and I was struck simultaneously by the feeling that I had been mistaken about this whole event.
“Hey there,” I called out, “Are you guys selling bikes today or just collecting them?”
“Just collecting them,” the boy closest to me replied.
“Oh, all right,” I tried to keep my voice light, “Well, it looks like you’re off to a good start already. Good luck!”
“Thanks,” he mumbled.
I took my son’s hand and led him away, admitting to him that I’d been wrong about the drive, that they weren’t selling bikes so we should just return to our car and head home. My son accepted the change in plans easily enough, happy to skip along and babble on about his upcoming birthday, while I was left just a little shaken, a little embarrassed.
I was upset because I felt like somehow I had ended up on the wrong side of a different kind of privacy fence. I had grown up in a community like this one, where everyone had a contract with a landscaping crew to maintain their perfect lawn. Shouldn’t my family be here now? Shouldn’t my kids be the ones (like these pouty pre-teens) collecting the bicycles and providing them to those who were really in need? Why did I suddenly feel like a beggar, hoping to get a used bike for my daughter and save some cash?
On the walk back to the car I struggled to hear my son’s voice over the whoosh of cars rushing by on the busy boulevard, and as I glanced one last time at the beautiful homes I tried to convince myself that I wouldn’t want to live there anyway. No wonder they needed high fences -- they weren’t just for privacy but also for buffering the traffic noise.
Consistent with my tendency to let things snowball in my mind, I began second guessing several recent choices, starting with taking my kids to get school breakfast the day before.
School breakfast is now free to all students in the Cambridge Public Schools. Someone suggested to me recently that this was a bad policy, that the policy allowed parents to abdicate their role of feeding their children. But the school cafeteria had advertised special Friday breakfasts this month, and my kids were very excited about this week’s option. Should I have denied them the opportunity to have school breakfast because we could afford to have our meal at home? Was I taking advantage of the system by allowing them to take the free breakfast? Should I have tried to pay for it?
I have written previously on this blog about the monthly markets at many of the Cambridge Public Schools. Food For Free provides a variety of produce, dairy, meat and non-perishable items for the school communities. The markets are open to everyone -- parents, teachers and staff members make their way to the cafeteria each month to partake of this event.
When my kids’ school began to host a monthly market this school year I decided I wanted to help out. Since the fall I have volunteered to help unbox and arrange the food on cafeteria tables in order to prepare of market opening. And once we’re all set up and ready to go, I shop early in order to get my selection of food in the trunk of my car before heading back into the school to gather my children.
This food has helped me out on more than one occasion -- like the time I had forgotten to stock up on peanut butter. It has given me ideas on what to cook based on the produce available. It has pushed me to offer my kids more fruits and vegetables than I otherwise would. Knowing that my kids often refuse to eat them, I realized that I had grown in the habit of skipping vegetables more often than not, or at least not offering anything more adventurous than frozen mixed veggies from a bag.
Still, for the first few months of the market’s existence at our school, other moms would whisper in my ear, “Do you think it’s okay if I shop? I mean, I can afford to buy my own groceries. I don’t want to take food away from someone who really needs it.”
I had similar concerns at the beginning. I asked the coordinator’s advice. She reassured me that the market was open to everyone and that there was often food left over that she tried to ferry to another location for distribution.
I passed along this feedback to my friends and added one point of my own: that if everyone participated then more people would feel comfortable attending. Most people have that pride that makes it uncomfortable to admit they can’t make ends meet on their own. I wouldn’t want the market to exacerbate any visibility between the haves and have-nots.
I thought of the market as my son and I retrieved our car from the parking lot at the music school, and I considered where I wanted to be on the scale of having or not having.
I realized that I had assumed growing up that the goal would be to end up at the top of that continuum, whereby ensuring my family always had more than we needed, we could be free to act as saviors to those around us. We could serve and hand out help and feel good about ourselves. It made me uncomfortable to accept that wasn’t my reality.
And yet...was it really a goal to strive for?
Four years ago when my twins were born, friends and neighbors delivered meals to my family daily for three months straight. Did we really need the food? No. Could we have afforded take out? Yes. So how could I have accepted the handouts that these families delivered so sacrificially?
Because I needed something other than food. I needed to feel not alone in this, my struggle to figure out that transition.
About a year or so after that, at school pick up, several tiny people were screaming at me for something to drink, and I was empty handed. The mom next to me in the pick up line -- the mom who spoke English as a second language, who drove for Uber, who had a history of marital abuse that ended in divorce, a mom who I would have labeled as far needier than me -- bent down to fish out a smoothie from her purse and a juice box from her own daughter’s lunchbox. She thrust them in my hands and insisted I take them.
I swallowed my pride in that moment and took them from her. I didn’t want to be the one in need of help, but who was I kidding? I was a young woman with disheveled hair juggling four kids, two in a stroller but all four wanting to be held. I looked like I needed help. And who was I to refuse this other mom and risk offending her?
That moment brought the two of us closer, and as I drove away from the piano school recently I remembered the lesson of that time.
You could say that neighbors helping neighbors is a far cry from blanket services that ensure daily meals to all school children or, beyond that, services in place to help anyone we think should be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and help themselves. But then I think of every time I have been able to relax and enjoy my family or a community event because dinner has been provided.
Once a month I drop off a sandwich dinner on behalf of Community Cooks to a group of elementary kids. Am I enabling their mothers to abdicate responsibility for preparing dinner? No, I like to think I’m gifting them with an evening of not having to decide what to feed their families (anyone else struggle with meal planning?), although it possibly could go further than that and save them from making the choice between feeding their families or keeping the lights on. Regardless, we could all use an evening off from our worries.
And, on a larger scale, I remember a friend who upon returning from medical missions in Africa said the people there were thankful for the money and medical care we send...but that they keep us in their prayers as they learn about America’s struggle with depression and suicide. Do we need their prayers any less than they need our funds?
I try to be self-sufficient. I try to take care of myself and my kids. But there have been both long periods of time and many small moments when I haven’t been enough. And there will be times in the future when I need help. My goal is not to seek the top where I can sit and act as savior. It’s an illusion anyway. How much better to be in the community where we can take turns washing each others’ feet? Sure, most of the time I don’t want to expose my inadequacies. But I am glad that I am not an island.
Because once we are through the difficult times and back on our feet, we are able to serve once again, this time with a tighter, stronger community around us.
7/1/2019 05:31:28 am
Great article Caroline. It’s nice to get glimpses of the details of your life and your thoughts.
7/1/2019 06:16:11 am
Thank you so much!
7/5/2019 05:50:02 am
This brought tears to my eyes. I I heard that research shows people in impoverished communities are happier than people in wealthy communities because they must rely on one another for help more. This brings them more tightly together and relationships, are after all, what make us happy.
7/5/2019 06:43:27 am
Thanks so much for your words, Laura. I remember telling you years ago that I wasn't sure whether or not I had done the right thing when I accepted the drinks from the mom at pick-up time. You had assured me that I was right to accept help. I'm guessing that accepting help is one of those things that we need to keep practicing to do right!
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