Walking the Walk, Cooking the Box
Here at Manna Food Center we fully embrace the notion that Dr. King’s Birthday should be a “Day On not a Day Off.” This year in particular, I wanted to honor Dr. King in a way that would help me be a better leader. Taking to heart Dr. King’s observation that,
“The ultimate measure of a [hu]man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige and even his life for the welfare of others.”
I decided I wanted to test my commitment to the welfare of others by walking in the shoes of those Manna serves. I began a week long “Manna diet.”
Like any other participant who schedules a pick-up at one of our distribution sites, on the Friday before MLK weekend I claimed a closed box of non-perishable items and an open box of produce, along with a bag of meat. Even though I know the technicalities of a Manna order—approximately 60 lbs of food designed to offer items that match the nutritional guidelines of the USDA’s My Plate, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of food I received and the range of items it contained.
Looking the order over, I experienced my first minor disappointment—my produce allotment contained more than ½ dozen green peppers, and only one red. I’m not a big fan of green peppers. Plus, there was a huge head of cabbage. I had no idea how to cook that, and I forgot to grab a recipe in the lobby. But seconds later I felt a boost: a sweet item I could choose from the dessert table was my favorite—crème brulee. I rarely get that special treat except when I go out to eat at a fancy restaurant. There was even a peanut butter brownie for my spouse!
Within two minutes of my “diet” I got a sense of what Manna participants experience every time they turn to us for food—the fact that the offerings are well-rounded, nutritious, and tasty, but they are also mostly determined by “the luck of the draw.” I received what items were available due to what had been rescued or collected that particular week.
When I arrived home, opening the closed box of canned items and bag of protein was a little like opening birthday gifts. There was a lot of curiosity about what was inside. Here, too, I was pleased and disappointed at the same time. There were lots of green canned vegetables and tuna, which I know I need to eat more of, but there were also yams and dry beans that held no appeal for me. Also, some of the meat options I had never cooked before in my life (pork neck bones turned out to be quite delicious after I simmered them in a crock pot). In my meal planning for the week, I realized how much I typically rely on food items that are pretty quick to prepare—frozen veggies, quick to boil pasta—and are not very creative. With the Manna box, I had a variety of items that required time and talent to prepare. I also realized that I go out to eat regularly, which is something low-income families might not have the option of doing.
Over the course of my week, aware of the nature of my experiment, I tried not to complain too much about the constraints of my food options, but I definitely felt limited by my circumstances. I also learned a lot about myself in how I typically use food to reward myself (no salty chips were in my Manna box!), and I gained an appreciation for how much creativity and commitment is necessary to make the most of Manna offerings. If I wasn’t already committed to Nutrition Education programs to help our participants learn how to shop and cook on a budget, I am now! If I wasn’t passionate before about increasing options for choice, I am now! I am so grateful that Manna, in partnership with faith communities, has three choice pantry opportunities each month, where neighbors can shop for the food that matches their families’ size, tastes, and other preferences.
All in all, my week on a Manna diet didn’t entail too much hardship, and I’m proud of that. That means to me that what Manna is offering our participants is generous, healthful, and appropriate. We are on track to meet our goals for continuing to increase the quality of food and the options for receiving it. What I learned most from the week-long diet was the power of giving up comfort and convenience. Inspired by Dr. King and fueled by the direct experience of being reliant on others for my food, I am more committed to helping create a hunger free Montgomery County.
Thank you for joining us in our concern for the welfare of our neighbors. I look forward to your responses (on our FB page or firstname.lastname@example.org) to the Manna diet and any reflections you have about the work we are doing.