Ellen has a twin sister, and grew up with a keen sense of the importance of asserting a preference — it bolsters identity and affirms dignity to be able to choose what you want. Too often, though, that dignity is one of the many things people who are poor go without. Here, she reflects on an experience of helping to offer a hungry man not just food, but a meal he wanted.
As the youngest of five children (and the youngest among many more cousins) I grew up wearing hand-me-downs that belonged, at turns, to siblings or cousins (or both) before they arrived to me. I watched my mom religiously cut coupons from the Sunday ads, planning our family dinners according to what was a good deal for feeding a large family.
I never wanted for anything; I never worried about where my next meal would come from. But I did have a sense for the luxury of being able to choose something out of sheer preference for it, and not because it was the right decision for practical reasons.
That’s why it was particularly special that, every year on my birthday — which I share with my identical twin sister — my mom would make us two cakes. My sister got to pick out the cake she wanted for her birthday, and I picked out the cake I wanted for mine. The opportunity to choose our own cakes was a silly but effective way for my mom to make sure we felt special, loved, and celebrated as individuals on a day that most kids weren’t forced to share.
My sister usually picked a giant chocolate chip cookie (baked in a big pizza pan), and I would usually choose “pop cake,” a Midwest delicacy that features strawberry Shasta soaked into vanilla cake mix. We’d often coordinate our cake choices to make sure we could capitalize on the sweets without doubling up on one category of sugar over another (i.e., each of us picking a chocolate-based dessert), which just added to the thrill of getting to assert a preference at all.
I knew from experience that choosing, based entirely on my preferences and whims, gave me a sense of dignity and agency, but I had to re-learn that lesson when it came to serving the poor.
Every day, a gentleman stood outside the bodega and asked politely if the customers walking in would consider getting something for him. Whenever I had occasion to stop at that particular grocery store, I’d grab him a bottle of water and a piece of fruit — something basic, healthy, no frills.
I don’t write this thinking I was heroic for offering such a pittance; it was quite literally the very least I could do. As I finished my purchase one day, I realized how strange it was that I’d picked out a banana for him, even though I personally dislike them (it’s a texture thing, not a taste thing). Maybe he had the same dislike, maybe even for the same reason. So the next time I passed, I simply asked him if he wanted something specific from inside.
Of course he did.
He’s a human person, with taste buds and preferences and a life of eating food and drinking beverages. Of course he likes certain things more than other things. Everyone does. Everyone has preferences.
At shelters and kitchens, it’s common that one meal is served — take it or leave it. What’s more, we often donate only the clothes, toys, books, furniture that we no longer want — we give away only what’s convenient to part with. We often offer the poor the bare minimum, the leftovers, the dregs of what remains after our wants and needs have been met.
Of all the ways that poverty curbs and complicates a person’s experience of dignity and agency in the world, the opportunity to choose what tastes good is an often-overlooked aspect. Maybe that’s because it’s not the most dire need to meet — maybe it’s not a “need” at all; maybe it’s a want. But wants are part of how we experience our freedom, our willpower; they are expressions of our personality and individuality. They constitute a significant component of our humanity.
I know how exciting it can be to assert a preference, to savor something that was prepared just for you, or to wear something that didn’t come from the box of ill-fitting hand-me-downs. Having a preference for food met not only fills the belly, it confers dignity by the very opportunity to choose. This is not to discourage donations, or to begrudge second-hand fashion (no way!), but rather to be mindful of the great gift and rare treat it is to simply choose something for oneself.
Some communities are finding innovative solutions to tackle this particular aspect of poverty head-on: Inspiration Café in Chicago has a mission to provide “restaurant-style meals to homeless or low-income men, women, and families in a therapeutic community that promotes dignity and respect.” Restaurant-style meals means folks are greeted, seated, and handed a menu to pick out exactly what sounds good on that particular day.
What sounded good to the gentleman outside the bodega I visited a few times a week? On that particular day, it was roasted chicken from the deli and — I will never forget this because he all but beelined for the drink section — Arizona Iced Green Tea.
Later in the week when I saw him again, he didn’t have to ask me to consider getting something for him during my errand; I asked him first: green tea again today?