In the gathering dusk, men and women in dark parkas and shaggy wool caps slowly begin to emerge from the neighborhood’s side streets and move haltingly down Winooski Avenue. Heads down, hands shoved in their pockets against the cold, they silently pass windows lit for the holidays and move toward a huge warehouse.
The warehouse is located 10 or 11 blocks north of the Victorian homes and upscale shops for which the city of Burlington, Vermont, has, time and again, been rated as one of the ten best places to live in America by a slew of national media. But here there are no houses trimmed in lacy gingerbread and no chic shops. Instead, sagging homes line the street surrounding the warehouse, which—along with a small kitchen—is home to the Chittenden County Emergency Food Shelf.
A freezing rain pelts the 60 or so men and women gathering outside. Inside, eight volunteer students from the University of Vermont (UVM) dressed in jeans and khakis are working furiously to bake chicken, warm up Tater-Tots, re-heat donated pizza, chop vegetables, make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and put bananas and beverages within easy reach of anyone who comes through the door.
Six nights a week, the Salvation Army makes dinner for those who have fallen through the safety nets of the city, state, and nation. But on Sunday, the Army’s day of rest, the UVM kids take over and make sure that anyone who’s hungry gets fed.
The students are more than just short-order cooks. With $85 from UVM, the group has spent the afternoon shopping for bargains at PriceChopper; scavenging for pizza seconds at American Flatbread, Uno’s, and Domino’s; and sweeping up not-quite-stale pastries at Starbucks. They arrive here at the Food Shelf by 4:30 p.m.
This year the program is headed by a tall, blonde chemistry major from Ohio. At age 22, senior Carly Hodgins has been a part of this group for four years and is a masterful organizer. She bursts through the door loaded with bags of bread, boxes of pizza, and a carful of fellow students. Within minutes every hand is scrubbed, chicken is in the oven, salad is being tossed, pizza is warming on the stovetop, and this observer is put to work too, chopping what seem to be a zillion carrots.
Here are the stark facts about hunger in this plentiful nation. While 96,000,000,000 pounds of food are thrown away every year by the food industry—that’s 96 billion pounds—someone in 1 out of every 10 households in the United States is either hungry today or at risk of being so tomorrow.
Why they are is a matter for sociologists and politicians to debate. But for these kids, it’s beyond politics: When people are hungry you feed them.
“Time to open up!” Carly yells.
The door swings open. Men and women who’ve been waiting outside silently flow into the building, single file. There’s no pushing or shoving, just focused intent. Ten steps inside the door each man or woman picks up a waiting plate and the students start piling it with food. Every person gets a portion of meat, vegetables, salad, potatoes, and pizza. When the last person heads for a table, those who’ve been through the line can come back for seconds. The kids will serve until they run out of food.
Carly stands at the end of the food line and offers a beverage. “Apple juice?” she asks, looking straight into the eyes of each diner. “Orange juice?” Her smile is a flash of sunshine, her warmth a benediction.
As she reaches out to steady someone’s hand, I remember words buried long ago in my heart: “I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
When the last meal has been served and the last diner has gone back into the darkness, I wipe down a steel table in the kitchen and think about what these kids have accomplished: Tonight, no one in Burlington will go hungry.
To contribute to a food bank, please contact Feeding America (feedingamerica.org). Excerpted with permission from Blessed: Living a Grateful Life, © 2011 G. Ellen Michaud, published by The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., rd.com.
Edited on Dec 8, 2011: Blessed was named 2011’s “Best Inspirational Spiritual Book” by USA Book News.