My boys with a friend at a community-potato-planting party, Circle Mountain Farm, Guilford, VT
My young sons scampered around the front of the church, stopping now and then to come over and ogle at the people who handed in their tickets to get ingredients for their Christmas dinners: hams, sweet potatoes, winter squash, potatoes, beets. My 6-year-old, Levi, claimed the job of picking out the ham to put in each bag. We were assisting in the holiday food distribution organized by Groundworks Collaborative in Brattleboro, Vermont, taking place in a church right on Main Street—in fact, in the church that we attend. New toys lined the back table, and parents could stop in the back and pick out toys to take home for their own children. My kids were enamored of the toys, of course, and not sure why they couldn’t take any. We finished our two hours of helping out and went home to our own warm, lighted house, to eat a nourishing supper. In that moment I could pat myself on the back for ‘teaching’ my children to be good, kind citizens of the world, and be done with it. Lesson learned? That helping others is important. That helping ‘the poor’ is important. But the other lessons, harder to talk about and harder to understand at six and two years old, lurked just below the surface, offering itself up if only I were brave enough to try.
“I want to talk to you both about the people that came in today to get food,” I started, without knowing what path the conversation might take. I explained that the people who came in to get food are just like us, no different, just in a position where they’re not able to buy enough groceries to feed themselves and their family. “I know,” my son says. I am slightly surprised, because I’m sure at 6 years old I already believed that my family was quite different than the people we ‘helped’ with food donations. Already as a young child I remember a sense of an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, dividing the world neatly on class and colorlines. I plow forward.
“The way that our money system is organized in this country lets some people be rich, some people be very very rich. And if some people are going to be rich, other people have to be poor. The only way to get a lot of money if you own a business is that the people who work for you or make the things you sell don’t get paid enough.”
“Are we rich?” Levi asks. “No,” I say, “we aren’t.”
“Are we poor?” Emmett, my 2-year-old, asks, while pantomiming pouring water into his mouth. He has obviously been listening, though he starts chanting wildly, “rich and poor, rich and poor!”
“No, we have just enough. That’s all anyone needs.”
“Why do some people want to be rich?” Levi asks.
“I guess they feel like they need more and more things.”
“Like lots of houses and cars?”
“Yes, like that.”
“Is that okay?” he asks.
“I don’t think it is. I think everyone should be able to have enough of the things they need, like food and a place to live.”
This was a simple conversation to have. It obviously reduces the complexity of the capitalist system to a very base level, and leaves out a lot of details. But these conversations, flawed as they are, have to happen, because already, at 2 and 6, my children are absorbing incredibly powerful messages about the world and the way it’s organized. These messages are hard to undo later; in fact, many of us work well into adulthood to try to re-arrange our brains to accommodate our new understandings.
Some people argue that because food banks and food shelves are just band-aids for a broken system, we shouldn’t work to support them but instead to dismantle the system that allows so many people to suffer in poverty. While it is true that the system is broken, I want to use my energy and time to help my neighbors and community members who are in need right now. If I can help get food into someone’s belly today when it is needed, I want to do that, and I want my children to do that too. Helping others isimportant. However, these helping actions cannot happen in a vacuum, and we must have supporting conversations with our children and with each other about what happens when we ‘help’, why some people are poor and others are rich, and so on. Serving food at the food shelf is the meat and potatoes, but the conversation about our broken system is the broth it all floats in.