The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has asked Catholic families throughout the US to participate in “First Fridays for Food Security,” taking place every first Friday from May 6, 2011 through April 6, 2012, and they’ve launched a Facebook page to promote the monthly event. The Bishops are asking us to eat meals that cost only as much as is allotted by the USDA Modified Thrifty Food Plan for a family the size of our own, determined according to the national poverty level, which is $29,990 for a family of six. The next first Friday fast occurs on August 6.
Farm families work hard to produce the food from which we all prosper, yet often cannot afford to purchase the fruit of their own labor. Can we even imagine what that’s like? Although, in this struggling economy, most of us are operating from slimmed-down budgets, I doubt many of us have had to slim our budgets to the point of excluding necessities, at least on a regular basis.
When I was 12 years old, our family moved into “farm country,” to the town of Hingham (population 219) in a corner of Sheboygan County, Wisconsin. We maintained our city slicker lifestyle (to the chagrin of some neighbors), but learned to appreciate the toil and struggles of the farm families who surrounded us. Back in the city, kids rose in a cozy house, ate a half-way decent breakfast, were driven to school and dropped off at the end of the playground. The kids who were truly “underprivileged” had to – Gasp! – walk to school!
In farm country, kids rose at the crack of dawn, hauled themselves into the barn to help with chores, tromped back to the house to change from work clothes to school clothes, grabbed a quick breakfast, and then trodded to the end of the drive to wait for the school bus to pick them up. Sometimes it was an hour ride by the time they reached the school. None of these families were basking in abundance; their homes and properties were modest and they lived frugally. I sometimes wonder if their families had adequate food and shelter.
Once, as we were driving along the highway to the next town, I saw a row of buildings – long, narrow, plain, with chipping paint and windows spaced about every six feet or so. They were lined up on a farm property near the main barn, surrounded by dry, dusty dirt. They didn’t quite look like animal shelters, but they didn’t quite look like human shelters, either.
I asked my dad what they were.
“Oh, those are homes for the migrant workers,” he replied.
I didn’t even know what a migrant worker was. When dad explained that they’re families who follow the growing season around the country and are paid to harvest the crops, I was mortified. It wasn’t the crop-picking that got to me, it was the instability of the lifestyle and the baseness of the housing provided for them. I had a doll house that looked sturdier that those migrant houses.
I was plagued with questions. Where did the kids play? There were no swing sets, no sand boxes, not even a swatch of grass to roll around on. What if the crops failed? Without crops to pick, they’d have no income. How did they spend time as a family? Where did they go to Mass? Could they have a dog? In my child’s mind, I tried to picture what family life would be like while consistently on the move. I thought that, at times, it must be really fun and at others times, it must be really crummy. I liked going to see new places, but I liked having familiar surroundings to come home to at night.
When I recently read the Bishops’ bulletin, about “First Fridays for Food Security,” I was reminded of that row of migrant houses, and all the questions that had run through my mind when I saw them. I was shocked to learn from the Bishops that, according to the Department of Labor, the poverty rate among farm workers – made up primarily of families – is 60% and an alarming 75% make less than $10,000 per year. How many of us could raise our own families on that amount?
I knew from past experience that farm families do not live in the lap of luxury; I didn’t know, however, just how serious is their condition. The first Friday fasts can be a valuable tool in helping our children (and ourselves) to learn how to reach out to others in difficult situations, and to appreciate the real cost of the food we eat and so often take for granted. It also can help them to understand that one person’s sacrifice can be another’s sustenance, spiritually speaking. Solidarity involves much more than raising a picket sign; it involves doing something meaningful to begin the process of enlightenment and change.
I’ll gladly participate in the first Friday fast, remembering the farm families of my youth, joining in solidarity with all farm families, and giving thanks to God for all the gifts I and my family have been given.