There’s something inspiring about a local radio network organizing a $200,000 fund-raising drive that translates into a $1 million food drive, as David Ayres and Flagler Broadcasting are doing with and for Charles Silano’s Grace Community Food Pantry.
Just as it was inspiring when then-Mayor Milissa Holland organized that massive food drop, valued at $100,000, in Palm Coast during the pandemic, and when VerdeGo, the nursery on U.S. 1, donated every penny from every sale for five days, or $32,000, to Grace Community around the same time, enough to leverage that into $170,000 worth of food. Friday’s Food-A-Thon on WNZF will be the biggest drive yet. If you’ve not made your donation, you should.
One naturally feels proud about a community capable of this kind of generosity, and there’s little question that people like Ayres and Silano are ten times, a hundred times, the heroes that millionaire athletes or billionaire businessmen or media-created war heroes are said to be. But let’s be clear about what we’re proud about, and be careful not to pat ourselves on the back too much, or turn this into an occasion for look-at-me virtue-blaring while overlooking the point. Poverty in a land of wasteful plenty is nothing to be proud of. Allowing chronic poverty to continue is unpardonable. It’s one of those American pathologies that continues to explode this country’s claims to exceptionalism.
Because there’s something wrong, very wrong, about any community in what is supposedly the wealthiest country on earth still having to do this to ensure something as basic as putting food on the table for 3,500 families every week. Consider that number, which actually represents 10,000 or 12,000 people, a tenth of our county’s population, putting it in line with the national average and world average. This is the best we can do?
There’s something very wrong with our society when these hundreds of cars are having to line up on U.S. 1 every Saturday and Sunday in those convoys into Education Way, where Grace Community Food Pantry’s tireless volunteers provide them supplies for a week or two. The poverty line officially is making less than $26,000 a year for a family of four. In Flagler County, you see that poverty line every weekend stretching out of Grace Community.
Not a single one of these families is there by choice. They’re not there because they’re lazy, though thanks to Ronald Reagan’s demonization of government assistance we’ve spent the last four decades vilifying the poor and glorifying the rich, as if one were inherently inferior to the other, as if government handouts to the rich haven’t been 16 times more obscene and less justified than government handouts to the poor.
At a time when the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans control 16 times more wealth than the bottom half, these families are lining up at food pantries because of a rich country’s moral failure–because we embrace tax cuts that foster inequality and make it impossible for the working poor to be more than slaves to their next paycheck. One child’s sickness, one hospitalization, one car repair, one roof leak, one rent hike, let alone these spikes in gas prices, and they’re done for. They’re like “a man walking in a pond with water up to his mouth,” as a historian once described the poor of the 19th century, “the slightest dip in the ground, the slightest ripple, makes him lose his footing–he sinks and chokes.” This is what we call freedom, what we blithely accept as capitalism with an inhuman face (like a camera on every corner, a mass shooting every few days, or 1,100 bankruptcies a day).
These lines at food banks are happening in spite of one of the largest increases in food assistance in history in the last two years. But it only kept poverty from increasing. It did not decrease it. Imagine the consequences without that increase. Nor will philanthropic efforts like Food-A-Thons, however generous, decrease the need. Feeding America, the national association of food banks, is first to tell you that food stamps provide about nine times as many meals as food banks. If there is one road away from snarls at food banks, it’s through food stamps.
But the myths persist–that people on food stamps are moochers, though half those benefiting from food stamps are children (in Florida, 60 percent of recipients are in families with children), while the majority of the other half are either older, disabled or slaving at low-wage jobs. Or that food stamps are spent on junk food or are rampant with fraud, also falsehoods trotted out every time a reactionary wants to itch his Reagan scabs with new cuts (Trump wanted to cut the program by almost a third).
There will be an air of celebration in the next six hours as the Food-A-Thon very likely will reach and exceed its goal, as there should be. But celebration and outrage are not mutually exclusive. There should be outrage that we are now a nation not only of the deepest political divides, but of deeper social divides, of inequalities so deep and rampant that the 1920s have roared back: these car lines are a symbol of our regression.
You may recall FDR’s Four Freedoms: freedom of speech and worship, freedom from want and fear. We’re doing a mediocre job with the first and have gone zealots with the second. We’re doing terribly with the last two. It’s not that we’re incapable. The Food-A-Thon is proof. But freedom from want isn’t a one-off. It calls for a national commitment on the scale of square deals, new deals and great societies. Instead, we are still haunted by the ghost of Tom Joad.
Generosity has its place. So does wrath.