A recent meeting at my office took an unusual turn. The "office," I should say, is 285,000 square feet, covering the equivalent of 6-and-a-half acres. The Community FoodBank of New Jersey is the state's largest anti-hunger and poverty organization, and distributed 43 million pounds of food to people in need last year alone. It's been almost 40 years since our founder, Kathleen DiChiara, started what would become CFBNJ by handing out groceries from the back of her station wagon. Now our President and CEO, Kathleen is preparing to retire, and at this particular meeting she asked some of us to take a little time out of our busy schedules simply to think -- to see what ideas came to us and to share them.
I did just that, trying to focus on what we do, how we do it, and why. It didn't take long before one word started echoing in my mind.
1 in 5 kids in New Jersey faces hunger.
Almost 400,000 children in the state don't have enough to eat.
Struggling parents desperate to feed their families. People with disabilities. Veterans. Senior citizens. More than a million people across the Garden State who do not share in its bounty -- noses pressed against the glass, peering at lives of affluence, with plenty to go around -- just not for them.
That was the right word, wasn't it?
"Wildly unreasonable, illogical, or inappropriate," read one dictionary's definition. "Utterly or obviously senseless, contrary to all reason," said another. "Having no rational or orderly relationship to human life," explained a third.
Irrational. Unsound. Ridiculous.
Yes, yes and yes.
How else to describe a situation where many people in our state shop at lavish markets overflowing with expensive gourmet choices, selecting whatever strikes their fancy, without so much as a glance at the price. Where some make choices, set budgets and cut corners -- but still have enough of what they want and need for a good life and good health. But then others scrape by to survive, suffering pangs of hunger -- and pangs of panic -- as they scramble to figure out where they'll find their next meal, how they'll make it to the end of the month, what they'll give their kids to eat when the fridge is empty and the shelves are bare.
Not just in New Jersey. All across this country.
I started thinking: What would you tell a stranger who had no idea about hunger in America. "More than 300 million people live in this great and plentiful land of ours," you'd say.
"How many do you think go hungry?" A million, maybe two million might be the guess.
"Higher," you'd say.
Five million? No.
Ten million?! Guess again.
20 million? 30 million? No, it couldn't be that high. There's no way.
Then the guessing game would end and you'd lay out the cold, hard facts.
49 million Americans without enough to eat.
16 million children.
You see, we're not talking about more than 49 million people who'd love to get a new car but are going to squeeze one more year out of the one they have, or who've opted for a "staycation" instead of splurging on a getaway, or who make similar tradeoffs, decisions or sacrifices to keep their finances in check.
We are talking about 49 million people who do not have enough to eat.
The most basic human need -- food -- in plain sight but out of reach for one in six of us. One in five when it comes to kids.
Walk down the street. Pass six people. One of them is hungry. Did he pump your gas this morning? Did she clean your office or your home? Deliver your paper? Bag your groceries at the supermarket checkout line as you went through with a cart piled high?
Look at a school bus stop with five children. Maybe one of them didn't have breakfast. Maybe, fingers crossed, there'll be lunch at school -- but what about dinner?
As I let this all sink in, some other words came to mind: sadness and anger about this cruel reality. Frustration at the monumental scale of the crisis, like we're pushing that proverbial rock up the hill.
It left me feeling overwhelmed. Yes, the work we do day in and day out helps alleviate the suffering. Our efforts do make a difference.
But it's not enough, I thought. It's never enough.
I wallowed in those feelings of sadness, anger and frustration for a while. I thought, really thought, about the absurdity of the vast amount of hunger and poverty in our midst. About the immeasurable human toll, seemingly with no end in sight.
Then, slowly, another feeling started to creep in. Gratitude. Grateful, of course, for all I have. But also because I have the opportunity to do something about the problem every day, simply by coming to work.
And I came to the real heart of it all. You don't have to work at a food bank to do something today. Every dollar donated, every can of food collected, every hour volunteered really does help. Not all 49 million. But a hungry child, a hard-working family or a frail senior who might be closer than you know -- maybe your neighbor.
So if you're warm when others are cold, healthy when others are ill, safe when others are scared, loved when others are alone -- if you are fed and full when others are hungry and empty -- do something. Today.
Turning the tables and taking action is the best thing to do in the face of the absurd.
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