There is hunger in Florence, Alabama.
You wouldn't think so to drive through this pretty little town with its thriving downtown and well-kept historic neighborhoods. At night when the restaurants are buzzing, it's hard to find a homeless person on the street.
Florence does not have the kind of grocery store where union labor stocks the shelves with freshly made sushi and baby watermelons straight from a Chilean summer. For the last two decades I have shopped at a neighborhood grocery store where snuff and chewing tobacco are prominently displayed and where the hourly-wage workers know nothing about 'bargaining power'. Organic milk--or organic anything, for that matter--is not available at this store.
The reason I have shopped here for the past twenty-three years is because it is close to where I live. I have never lived in a subdivision nor do I ever intend to. People from the "section 8 houses" (government subsidized) walk to this store daily for food and cigarettes. Because it is a small store-- easy to get to and easy to walk around in compared to the behometh Walmart located on the outskirts of town-- the elderly like to shop here. College students pop in for cases of the beverage du jour. But mainly it is the grocery store of the working poor. The featured items prominently displayed include a lot of saltines, white bread, cheap breakfast cereal, canned vegetables, and store-brand boxes of macaroni and cheese.
Through the years I have seen a lot of young mothers, usually with their babies in their grocery carts, sorting through envelopes of clipped coupons as they shop, working hard to save a dollar here or there. I have seen fast food workers still in their uniforms in the check-out line with a cart full of the makings for chili or spaghetti. Later in the afternoon, the construction guys come in for a six pack and something to throw on the grill. Very rarely have I been in line behind someone using food stamps or WIC cards.
This Tuesday I saw something at this store I had never before seen. It was around 4 pm and parents had just picked up children from school. This is a popular time for people to grab a few items before heading home to make dinner. I was there myself for toilet paper, some grapes and a bag of rice, not an entire cart of groceries. As I picked up a basket and headed down the first aisle, a kid, maybe 8 years old, in badly fitting glasses, pleaded with his mom to buy a jar of mayonnaise. "But we're out!" He had picked up the mayonnaise from the sale floor display and held it up to show her the product as he pleaded. "You said!" he accused. "It's on sale." He held the jar of mayonnaise like a sports trophy above his head before he shifted it down to cradle it in a 'baby-doll' position. Whatever the mother said was whispered, but the kid in the glasses put the mayo back on the display and they headed for the checkout, a loaf of sliced bread the only item in her hands.
I don't think the reason they did not buy that jar of mayonnaise was because it was not organic.
Then on my way to find the toilet paper, I strolled by the meat counter. A man and woman in their 30s with two kids under the age of five held court at the hamburger section. They looked serious. They had obviously been in the store for a while because their cart was already relatively full of bags of potatoes, cans of green beans and corn, some dried beans, and several packs of the brand of hot dogs on sale this week. The dad had bought a store-brand grape soda from the cold drink machine, took a big swig from the can, and then handed it to the little girl, telling her to share it with her brother. When the wife showed him a package of hamburger meat, it was time for a conference. You could tell that they were adding up the cost of what was already in their cart and trying to decide if they could afford the hamburger meat. But what killed me, really killed me, was the pleading look in her eyes as she asked her husband if they could buy it, as she tried to rationalize the expenditure, there at 4 pm on a Tuesday afternoon in Florence, Alabama. She would really like to have the hamburger meat for her family, but they must first consult the rest of their grocery list and see if there would be enough money to buy it and the rest of the necessities they would need that week.
My grandfather was an accomplished gardener. By the time I was old enough to ride the school bus to his farm in the afternoons, he had two gardens. One was to supply food for his family. The other was to give vegetables to anyone else who needed food. One of my aunts was outraged by the people who came by to fill up bags with tomatoes, green beans, corn, and onions, people she had labeled as 'sorry people'. "They're just using him," she would say. "Just too lazy to make a garden for themselves." My grandfather smiled at my aunt and never said a word as he kept on cutting lettuce and pulling onions and radishes out of the ground and putting them into the trunks or back seats of the cars of anyone who stopped by and asked. My grandfather's farm was--and this is God's truth--halfway between Equality and Richville. My brother found the road sign the state of Alabama bulldozed when they widened the intersection there at my grandfather's farm. To the left: Equality. To the right: Richville. We were located halfway between the two.
Coosa County is a great poor man's county. Halfway between the struggle for equality and whatever lay on the other end of the spectrum. When my ancestors gave up owning slaves and moved there, I am not sure they knew what the future held other than hoping it was something more fair. Happier times, if no longer Richville.
It worries me that we seem to be drifting more and more toward what Jimmy Santiago Baca described in 1977 as "only a few people got all the money in this world, the rest count their pennies to buy bread and butter". My father came back from WW2 and never told us anything at all except that he had seen a man shoot another man dead over a wheel of cheese. Later we found out that Daddy had been in several major battles, including the Battle of the Bulge, and that he had sat on a snow-covered 'bench' in Germany all winter as he ate his provisions only to find in the spring thaw that the 'bench' had been a frozen dead mule. We found out that he was wounded twice and one of only two people from his platoon to live through the entire war. But of all the horror he must have seen, of all the unspeakable horror there was in WW2, what he wanted me and my brother to know was this: given the right circumstances of hunger, people will do what they feel they have to do.
Butter or bullets is not a new dilemma, but in the meantime as our country figures out the latest round of this, maybe this is not the time to rub our gourmet acquisitions in the faces of others. As Julianna Baggott's recent FaceBook post read: "Dear food gloaters who upload pics of their (gorgeous) meals, as Sister Mary Bertha would say: Did you bring enough for everyone?"