My 10 years working for one of the nation’s largest hunger-relief organizations has led me to think about the holiday season in a completely different way.
I see all the symbols of abundance and generosity — the sumptuous family dinners, the celebratory gatherings with friends — and the profound way they convey community, connectedness and human kindness.
But these feelings now are also accompanied by a shocking reality. Seeing how much we have, in food and spirit, then returning to my job after a holiday weekend, I’m taken back again and again to sobering contrasts. I love my work, and my organization’s mission. But it all hinges on the reality that one in 11 of us in Minnesota at any given time is struggling to find enough food.
As it is for all of us, food is interwoven with my memories and the things I hold dearest. Food is my Mom’s “love language,” and it’s through food that I connect with my kids every day. It’s one of the things that make us human and that we value across every culture, country and community: the sharing, the traditions, the warm experience of giving and receiving gifts large and small.
So when I see our friends and neighbors going without essential nutrition, I see the paradoxes within the plenty that surrounds us. It renews my own personal gratitude, which underlies the best of the holidays, and it reignites my focus on the challenge of relieving food insecurity.
Minnesotans are generous; we treasure connection and support. That’s why my organization will be opening a new state-of-the-art food distribution facility in 2020. With our partners and the goodwill of this giving community, we’re trying to build a table big enough for everybody.
We want it to be like one big Minnesota potluck, welcoming not only those in need, but also those who feed their own spirits by giving. As with that casserole you bring to the potluck that’s big enough to feed people you don’t even know yet, we all know that the warm feeling of nurturing friends and strangers alike can’t be replaced.
We’re living in a loud time. We receive many messages about what divides us and all the ways that we’re different. For me, this noise obscures a critical signal: the human values we share that bring us together for all the right reasons. Because it’s connection and community that feed us all, the companionship with our neighbors and the spark that gets lit in our hearts when we hold out a hand for another.
I’ve been at this long enough to see that, in many cases, giving and receiving are indeed cyclical and dynamic. And both contain elements of joy and healing. I get to see people coming out of the woodwork giving their time, money and talent. These are people from all walks of life who simply care about others — and many of them have also been food-shelf clients at one time or another.
That’s a pretty beautiful circle, made of interaction and caring. Maybe someone who can’t bring anything to our Minnesota potluck this year will bring the Jell-O or a little extra casserole next year. It’s as simple as that: Bring a little more than you need for yourself to share with others, and someone will share with you if you need it.
It’s probably no coincidence that this season, with nights growing long and days growing cold, is traditionally a time of reflection. I reflect every year on how we have to keep our spirit of imagination and possibility open, so that we can see a society without hunger is not only possible, but within our grasp. It starts with the point of view that whatever setbacks are part of a person’s story, nobody deserves to be hungry in our world of abundance.
We all deserve a seat at the table, full of light, generosity, conversation and sustenance. We all know intuitively that those are the things that bring us together and represent us at our best. When my neighbor is doing better, I’m doing better as well, because our lives and our interests are shared and intertwined. That’s true during this season, and all the seasons to come.
Rob Zeaske is the CEO of Second Harvest Heartland.