Eileen and her family at Christmas
December 20, 2016
by Eileen Emerson

The Child Hunger Corps is a national service program designed to increase the capacity and capability of food banks to execute programs targeted toward the alleviation of child hunger. The objective of the program is to increase the number of nutritious snacks and meals served to children in need in local communities around the country. The Child Hunger Corps initiative is sponsored by the ConAgra Foods Foundation.

In August 2016, the sixth cohort of 10 new Corps members were placed at Feeding America member food banks, bringing the current total to 40 Child Hunger Corps members working at food banks across the country. This post is by sixth cohort member Eileen Emerson, Child Hunger Corps member at Blue Ridge Area Food Bank in Verona, VA.

I know I can't be the only one who, since becoming a Child Hunger Corps member, thinks about food about three times as often as I once did. And I don't mean I spend a significantly more time thinking about what I'm going to have for dinner, though I do think I'm more appreciative of the fact that I know I will have a dinner.

No, I mean thinking about food as something more than just a meal, but rather as a societal glue, a defender of dignity, a mechanism for social justice and a vehicle for memory and culture.

I've spent a lot of time, recently, thinking about that last piece, in particular. How many of my own memories and relationships can be told through food?

There are the obvious examples: cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving or lamb with mint jelly at Christmas, markers of cultural and religious holidays celebrated with family. But food has meaning to me and my family every single day of the year, beyond just the holidays.

For example, as I was growing up, every Halloween (yes, I know this is technically a holiday) my mom and I would make a dirt cake for my class. In the interest of full disclosure, this dirt cake — mostly made of chocolate and Cool Whip with gummy worms poking their heads through crushed Oreo topping — has no nutritious ingredients. But I loved spending that time with my mom, dancing to "Monster Mash" and eating a gummy worm for every five I stuck in the cake. I loved getting to share something I had made with my friends and classmates.

Or, on essentially every snow day, my dad would make "Daddy Breakfast" — a pretty basic spread of biscuits, bacon and eggs (and of course, chocolate milk) that nevertheless felt like a special treat. My dad, as a pastor, worked a lot of late nights and weekends, so he wasn't home a lot period, let alone around for most family meals. Waking up to the smell of bacon — which my mother never made — meant that Dad was home and that we were going to get to spend a good chunk of our day with him, trying to scrape together enough dirty, icy snow from our Tennessee yard to make a snowperson.

Food has also helped get me through some difficult days. That sounds a little facetious — like "oh, this girl treated herself to a pint of ice cream after she finished a stressful final," and this is true, I certainly did — but I'm not talking about those stressful-but-not-really days. I'm talking about when my dad was hospitalized off and on for weeks when I was in eighth grade, and when he got sick again a few years ago. Both times, our house was flooded with food from friends and family. Like clockwork, our church arranged for us to be brought casseroles and entrees and side dishes pretty much every day. People from the community would randomly bring by homemade desserts. Sometimes my nana would come in carrying bags from McDonald's.

These people were showing their love and concern through food. When there was nothing else they could do, they knew they could feed us. They knew we needed to eat to live, but they weren't trying to keep us alive — they were trying to sustain and support us emotionally, to show solidarity and compassion, and they did that using food.

So, when I think about what my food bank and the Feeding America network do, I still think about the importance of making sure no one goes physically hungry. But I also think about how food enables neighbors to care for one another and build community, and how food allows a family to celebrate and to mourn. I think about how food can be the link between an immigrant and the country they've left behind, or how food can help people from two different cultures understand each other a little bit better. I think about how a chicken casserole can be a love letter.

That's what I think about, and that's what motivates me, and that's what I love best about this job.

Tags: Fighting Hunger in Action , Food Bank Network , Virginia , Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, Inc.

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