Texas at the Table: Part Four.
Preservative Pickles, Cardboard Apples, and the Theology of Disposable Dishware
at the Table in San Antonio, TX
While surveying the sights in San Antonio, we – the lovely ladies of the Texas at the Table: Project Go Road Trip – experienced the full spectrum of emotion – from shock and awe, disillusionment and hope. We discovered new insights into everyday theology – through eating red delicious apples and washing mismatched dishes. San Antonio was the fourth stop on the Texas at the Table Road Trip to explore how people across Texas creatively address hunger in their communities – or more simply, exploring where food comes from, who gets it, and who doesn’t.
Day Ten: After basking in the sun for an afternoon and unwinding in a cabin in the hill country, we dove back into summer feeding frenzy in San Antonio. Our first stop was Baptist Temple Church to meet with Pastor Jorge Zayasbazan. Baptist Temple was one of the first churches in San Antonio to initiate a summer lunch program for neighborhood children. In their second summer, Baptist Temple now hosts summer camp five days a week, providing programming for kids all morning long and ending with a lunch. In San Antonio, the summer lunch program is sponsored by the San Antonio Food Bank to coordinate the food distributed to the various lunch sites across the city. Pastor Jorge led us through the kitchen to show us a bagged lunch prepared by the Food Bank – a hot dog wiener, pickle-in-a-pouch, fruit cocktail, and fruit cereal bar. If enough time and hands are available, the hot dogs will be heated up in the microwave before served to the children in a white bun. My fellow Road Trippers – already having their fill of hot dogs – were aghast at the nutritional deficiency of said meal. And yet such meals meet the US Department of Agriculture’s nutritional standards of a healthy meal.
From Baptist Temple, we jumped in the cars, stuffed some carrots, cucumbers and hummus in our mouths and headed towards the San Antonio Food Bank to meet with Paco Velez, Director of Services – to take a tour of the city programs with which the Food Bank partners. First stop, a neighborhood center summer program for teens. This program was co-sponsored with HEB and Radio Disney. When we walked through the doors, we were hit with the smell of sweaty adolescence, or should I say, teen spirit. Radio Disney led dancing-jazzercise wonderful-ness with the teens. The HEB mascot handed out apples. The overall focus of the program is health and fitness. I spoiled the good vibes by politely declining the offer of an apple, because personally, I think red delicious apples taste like cardboard – and out of all the hundreds varieties of apples, I have no idea why we as a culture have adapted the red delicious apple as the apple of choice. If I were a teacher and a student of mine handed me a red delicious apple, I would promptly compost it. Perhaps this is a bit harsh, but food grown for artificial appearances preserved to have a shelf-life of 6 months should not be considered edible. Chemicals are used to keep the food-product looking fresh, while the sugar content (ie flavor) begins to deteriorate the moment it is plucked from the branch. This is not food. And this is why our children do not eat their vegetables. Or red delicious apples. Or fruit infused-in-high-fructose-corn-syrup cocktail. And also a contributing factor to the increasing rate of adult-onset diabetes and obesity amongst our children. Excuse my rant.
After the youth center, Paco took us to a senior center distributing senior food boxes in addition to what the social worker side of me chooses to refer to as the diabetes line – donations from HEB of all the day-old pastries, cakes, cookies, breads. Don’t get me wrong – I truly appreciate attempts to salvage food from waste (and am an avid dumpster diver of groceries and used to rescue hundreds of $$$ worth of fresh produce from my local Trader Joe’s) – however, as a former case manager for low-income and homeless families, it pains me to see people who have lost their sight, toes, or whole legs to diabetes reaching for that free cake donated by HEB. Let them eat cake, indeed! If we want to adequately fix our broken health care system while attempting to end hunger in our communities, we must understand and emphasize the importance of good nutritious food. A shift must occur socially and culturally. Those of us from higher economic brackets who prefer fresh organic food – be it from HEB, Central Market or Whole Foods – musn’t reach for the can of creamed corn and bag of ramen noodles that we wouldn’t feed ourselves or our children when the next food drive for the church food pantry hits us in the face. If we have respect for our own bodies and own health – as well as that of our children – then as Christians (if we claim to believe in God and the words Jesus said to love our neighbors as ourselves) we must also respect the health and well-being of our brothers and sisters we serve at food pantries, on the street, at work, next door. Excuse my rant.
Next stop: one of the Food Bank’s drive-thru food box distribution sites. Typically the Food Bank requires that a parking lot can accommodate 500 cars in order to qualify as a site. The site is complete with canopies covering everything from potatoes to beverages to rice and more is hand-loaded by Food Bank employees into the trunks and backseats of those willing to sit idling in the parking lot. Qualifications: folks must have a child under 18, call ahead to the Food Bank to reserve a box, and be willing to take the time in the morning or afternoon to wait in line. Such a food distribution presupposes transportation and gas money.
Our last stop before heading back to the Food Bank was the infamous Haven for Hope, a multi-million dollar response to homelessness in San Angelo. As our friend Steven from Austin explained, Haven for Hope is the Walmart of the social service world: one stop shopping for the homelessness community, providing a multitude of programs and gated community setting – and slowing putting smaller homeless assistance programs out of business with the consolidation of funding and services focused on Haven for Hope. The Food Bank’s role at Haven for Hope is food, of course, as well as a Culinary Arts Training Program – allowing residents to participate in a job-readiness program. We benefited from some of the program’s red velvet cake.
Finally, the Food Bank operates a garden on the site of the main headquarters. I led the gals for a plant identification tour – testing their increased knowledge of various vegetables and herbs. Upon asking Paco about the Food Bank’s sourcing of fresh produce, he told me they work with one of the largest produce warehouses in the state of Texas – which donates millions of pounds of vegetables and fruit each year. The Food Bank also encourages community partners to start their own gardens, providing seeds and tools to help get their gardens started.
That evening we had a terrifying experience had an HEB-plus on the south side of the city. I would also like to comment that any and all of my rants are not against the San Antonio Food Bank specifically. The SAFB is one of the best food banks in the nation, distributing large amounts of food to those in their community who need that extra support. They do good work. However, I am continually frustrated when efforts to address hunger in the community are haphazardly bandaged through quick fixes of food-products devoid of nutritional value – while the plight of the family farmer is furthered by our societal reliance upon agri-business and corporate conglomeration of our food system. Seems like there should be a solution in there some where to connect the idea of growing food with the issue of ending hunger, while economically benefiting small growers and the local community at the same time . . . Excuse my rant.
Day Eleven: Friday morning our view of San Antonio – and the entire trip – shifted. Rather than continuing to see refined programs tailored to look good in funding pamphlets, we saw down and dirty service to community. We metwith Dee Sanchez, volunteer at the San Antonio Catholic Worker House – who, first things first, led us in a devotion centered on Matthew 25, integrating Jesus’ message into the work of the Catholic Worker house – feeding the hunger, providing shelter to the homeless, doing laundry, sharing conversation, sharing coffee, etc. The Catholic Worker Movement started many moons ago when a fiesty young woman – Dorothy Day – and simple agrarian-minded man – Peter Maurin – frustrated by the Church, decided to become the hands and feet of Christ through inner-city and agricultural hospitality. Today many Catholic Worker Houses are scattered across the country, continuing in the fiesty agrarian spirit of Dorothy and Peter. We Road Trippers truly felt that all who entered this old house were truly welcome. We spent the morning in the crowded kitchen of the house preparing lunch for whomever might show up. Potatoes were chopped, boiled and mashed. Donations of meat from a local rib joint were brought in. Herbs gathered from the garden. Vegetables chopped for salad. Peaches prepped for peach cobbler. Men wandered in and out, grabbing a hot cup of coffee on this 100-plus degree day. Folks came in to sign up for the laundry list. Some wanted to look through the clothing closet. Others volunteered to wash dishes. All was chaos – clanging of plates, swapping of stories – 50 at one time, sweaty bodies huddled over the chopping block. And yet through the chaos of it all – we loved it. Rather than receive food and donations from the San Antonio Food Bank or applying for government funding, the Catholic Worker House relies on donations from charitable folks in the community, praying God will provide day by day.
While preparing the meal, we heard stories of people on the streets. Some struggling to get into Haven for Hope and expressing their frustration with the lack of transparency of the program. Neither of the two claimed to do drugs, struggle with alcohol or have a history of abuse – which are key issues for getting a bed quickly at Haven for Hope. Rather they are the in-betweens, sleeping outside huddled against the building. They are allowed to take showers – but the stalls are only half-height and the toilets have no doors. Lunch is a cold sandwich in a brown bag. This couple has fallen through the cracks, like many other folks we meet – and this is where the Catholic Worker House opens its doors. For those who fall through the cracks. A hot meal is provided – with mashed potatoes, made from real potatoes, not off-brand flakes. And the dishes are real, not disposable. Another pet peeve of mine – disposable dishes. And not for the eco-elite reason of not being environmentally sustainable – but because of dignity. You would wash dishes for your family . . . If we serve people disposable food on disposable dishes, soon people begin to understand themselves as disposable people.
We served over 100 people for lunch that day – without air conditioning, without a dishwashing machine, without the Food Bank, without the government. As Dee said, “Love in Reality is a harsh and dreadful thing as compared to the Love in Dreams.” After cleaning up, we were plumb tuckered out and went back to our apartment at Baptist University of the Americas – and order a pizza from our local Pizza Hut . . .
Day Twelve: A more relaxed day. Drove to the Farmers Market at Pearl Brewery, where we bought some vegetables, sniffed some lavender, and browsed some books. Then we traipsed through Whole Foods – a first for the gals. So I gave them my Whole Foods plan of action – walk the perimeter and look for free food samples; walk the interior for free food samples; and walk the perimeter once more for free food samples. I also pointed out the Diva Cup – which I won’t get into here – but I had already given my 2-cents worth about being more sustainable during that time of the month. We ate lunch at Whole Foods before the gals scampered off to play sand volleyball in the scorching hot sun, with the two German Brethren volunteers we met at the Catholic worker house the day prior. Then we met up for dinner at Casa Rio and perused the River Walk, on the prowl for adventure. Finding none, we went home for a good night’s sleep before our drive to the Valley.
End Day Twelve. End Part Four.