No one leaves Montclair’s Human Needs Food Pantry without food. Even folks from surrounding communities who are not among our registered clientele leave with a bag of groceries, a loaf of bread, often a pastry or a half gallon of juice, and an item or two from the table of donated cans and cartons adjacent to the check-in desk. Mike sees to it. He fills out an emergency food slip for anyone who comes through the door. Then he explains what info the person needs to bring back to him (e.g., a rent receipt) to qualify for weekly groceries. Mike writes out such a slip for one man who brings it to me. After I tell him that, in addition to his bag of food, he may also take two items from the table and a loaf of bread from the rack, he looks me straight in the eye, squeezes my hand, and with disarming directness says: “Thank you for feeding me.”
Mike is the director and one of the good guys. His associate Janet is another remarkably good and caring person. Mike is a retired police chief who knows all about hunger and need. I man the front desk, greeting our clients, many now by name, retrieving their file cards, filling out the sign-in forms, and telling them how many supplementary items they may take from the adjacent table and how many breads they may take from the bread rack on the opposite wall. Then I yell out to Chris the size of the household so that he knows how many bags of groceries to place on his table for them. I do this over 120 times during a three-hour shift. Earlier in the day, before the pantry opens its doors to social workers at 12 and then to clients at 12:30, my wife Deane and I wait while Tyrell loads our SUV with the bags we will deliver to our list of clients unable to make it to the pantry – the elderly indigent, sometimes bedridden, often living alone.
This is my world every Tuesday, when I stop trying to understand the connection between medical history and present-day health care and seek out connection with people who need food and all kinds of care, medical and otherwise. Some future historian can try to place my experience in sociohistorical context. I simply want to give them food, to ask them how they’re doing, to tell them their children are beautiful, and to wish them a good week.
There is something primal about giving food to people who need it and appreciate getting it, people who are down on their luck but not down on their lives. “How are you,” I ask the people I serve. “I am blessed,” they sometimes reply. Working at the pantry has helped me reengage issues that have nothing to do with scholarly writing, to reorder my priorities in a life-affirming way. At a time when American political discourse has, in a different, twisted way, turned primal, hateful, exclusionary, it takes me to a place where real-world suffering can be addressed one family at a time through food and the nutrient of human connection.
Giving food to people is cleansing. It changes the way one feels about food, even the way one shops and eats. More importantly, it enlarges one’s sense of shared humanity with the low-income folks in one’s own community, almost all of whom, I have found, are dignified, convivial, and grateful. It takes me away from the sickening world of Donald Trump, whose inborn caring instincts flattened out long ago under the weight of narcissistic bloat. Our clients offer me a smile, a fist bump, a hand shake, occasionally a hug. They touch me with their hands but also with their eyes and their words. They ask me how I’m doing, and – knowing that I am a volunteer – thank me for doing this work, which, some tell me, is “the Lord’s work.” I do not know these people outside the food pantry. But within its walls, they are admirable – veterans, working single moms, unemployed or underemployed dads, the disabled, the down on their luck, the elderly indigent, the recently incarcerated.
Yes, we touch one another, and an offering of food and candy is the conduit to the touching. There is nothing extraordinary about food-mediated touch – it happens all the time, not only in the real world but in the world of medicine as well. Even Freud, who wanted the psychoanalyst to be as emotionally detached from his patients as the operating surgeon, invited many of his patients to lunch and dinner; he even fed his aristocratic Russian patient Sergei Pankejeff (aka the “Wolf Man”) during their analytic sessions. Doctors of our own time occasionally give needy patients food or money when food stamps have run out, and it becomes a matter of choosing between food and medication co-pays. Even nonprofits have gotten into the act. Through the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program (FVRx), for example, physicians now write fresh produce scripts for their low-income patients to fill at local farmers markets.
A tiny Asian woman, well into her 70s but wondrously youthful, marches up to the desk each week and, with warm-hearted brio, greets my coworker and me with: “Hello beautiful woman and most handsome gentleman.” When she becomes ill and her neighbor comes to pick up her food, I always send her my love, and when she finally returns some months later, I walk around the desk and we hug. The smiles of some of the women captivate me, I admit it. I have complimented several of them so often that they come to the desk smiling and laughing, knowing I will gaze at them for an extra second before turning to my file box. We have established rapport through a smile and a fleeting gaze of appreciation – an expression of my own gratitude to these women who come to us for food. When I remark to another woman how pretty she looks in her stylish jacket and hat, she almost breaks down, telling me she can’t remember when anyone last paid her a compliment, and that I have made not only her day but her week.
My exchanges with my friend Herb are of a different sort. He is one of our regulars for whom the pantry is a place not only to receive food but to linger and socialize – a convivial time-out from the lives they will return to. We all know who these folks are and, to a person, we accept their prolonged visits, talk to them supportively, and let them feel at home with us. At one point Herb shared his multiple health concerns with me, and I responded with, as they say, advice and sympathy. Herb is, inter alia, an unhappy diabetic, chafing under the weight of seriously poor numbers and recent medical injunctions about diet and lifestyle. Being an insulin-dependent diabetic myself, I warm to Herb’s plight, and we begin an ongoing dialogue about being diabetic. But Herb remains irreconcilable and, as if to put the cherry on the icing of his medical misery, he waits for me outside the pantry one day with his most recent medical labs in hand. Will I look at the report and tell him what it means? Well, Herb, I’m not a doctor, but sure, why not, let’s take a look at your numbers and see how you’re doing. Now, a year later, Herb still takes candy from the basket when he arrives at the desk, but now he looks at me and asks, either with his words or his eyes, how many he may take. Diabetic self-control was not built in a day.
It is the children especially who affect me. They come with their mothers or fathers or grandmothers, the babies and toddlers in strollers, the older kids standing patiently in line with the adults. They usually wait for more than an hour to sign in. When candy or snack bars come our way, we place them in a basket on the desk and – with the adult’s permission – ask the children to help themselves. But what happens when we have none? I solved the problem by bringing with me each week a large bag of candy – starbursts and skittles are special favorites – and offering every child a small handful. I always check with the moms, but with only a few exceptions over the years, they always smile, tell me its fine to give their children candy, and thank me. I do not have the impression these kids eat candy on a regular basis. So I become the pantry’s “candy man,” the dispenser of goodies, and the kids are (perhaps) a tad more accepting of the long wait in line, knowing that a special treat awaits them at the desk they will finally arrive at.
A little girl of four, virtually Dickensian in her placid soulfulness, stands silently by my side as I write furiously to complete her mother’s paperwork. Then, without uttering a word, she lightly places a finger on my forearm. “I know you’re here, sweetheart,” I remark as I continue to write at breakneck speed. “As soon as I’m done with Mom’s form, I’ll give you some candy.” And she waits, and I give her the candy, and she thanks me, takes her mother’s hand, and is off to the counter for their food bags. I wish a young man of nine or ten a good school year and extend my hand. He takes it and looks up mildly startled because the hand that clasped his own is filled with starbursts. Another little girl is so exhilarated with her handful of starbursts that she runs around the pantry, crying out for all to hear, “I have a cherry, and I have a grape, and I have a lemon, and I have an orange.” A little fellow of six or seven stares long and hard at the large basket of candy on the desk and gingerly takes a single small piece. “Take more,” I urge him. “Take a few. Go ahead.” “No, it’s okay,” he replies. “One is enough.” But it’s not, not on my watch. So I tell him to come around the desk where I am sitting and reach back for my big bag of candy, and then I instruct him, warmly but firmly, to take a handful. He seems momentarily confused, but then slowly, deliberately, reaches down into the bag and emerges with a handful of treats. “See,” I tell him, “that wasn’t so hard, was it?” To which he leans in closely and whispers into my ear, “I only took a little handful.”
Giving food to adults and candy to children is no small matter. It is a relational cement that binds us to others. When friends or relations or colleagues or acquaintances experience major life events, good or bad, we send them food baskets. When we want to acknowledge a special kindness or favor, we send food. We express condolences through food, and we express loving gratitude as well. Growing up the son of a beloved small-town family doctor in the 1950s and ’60s, I well remember the steady flow of home-baked goods that transformed our kitchen into a bakery every holiday season. The cakes, pies, and cookies not only expressed gratitude for medical care; they reaffirmed a human connection made tangible through the very sweetness of their baked offerings. As such, they affirmed my father in his calling as physician and healer. So it is with the children at the food pantry. When we offer a low-income child a bit of candy, we convey our appreciation of the child’s essential rightness and affirm the beautiful potential that inheres in this or that child, which is to say in any child.
So here is my advice to anyone repulsed by what has passed as presidential politics these past several months. Go to your community food pantry or food bank or soup kitchen and become a volunteer. Connect with the adults and connect with the children, and make sure to bring your own candy to give the kids. Enter their lives and learn from them about your own. In giving food to those who need it, you will feed your own humanity, and it is arguable which party to the transaction goes home better nourished.
 See Danielle Ofri, “When Doctors Give Patients Money” (http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/30/when-doctors-give-patients-money/?_r=0) and Sally Wadyka, “Food as Medicine: Why Doctors are Writing Prescriptions for Produce” (http://blog.foodnetwork.com/healthyeats/2015/03/26/food-as-medicine-why-doctors-are-writing-prescriptions-for-produce/).
Copyright © 2016 by Paul E. Stepansky. All rights reserved.
PRAISE FOR PAUL STEPANSKY’S IN THE HANDS OF DOCTORS: TOUCH AND TRUST IN MEDICAL CARE (PRAEGER, 2016).
“This book takes many conversations occurring in the world of medicine and reframes them in historical perspective. The result is a body of work with pearls of wisdom strung between the pages. . . . In the Hands of Doctors is an engaging and relevant read for anyone interested in the nuances of the doctor-patient relationship; a historical framework for understanding today’s questions in the medical humanities; or a thoughtful narrative on cultivating humanity in the modern practice of medicine.” – Ali Rae, review on the website of The Arnold P. Gold Foundation
“An engaging, richly documented, brilliant critique of the bond between doctor and patient, ranging from classical times through the present. The need for the bond continues, Stepansky argues; patients trust doctors, not teams, medical homes or health care systems. . . . This is a superb introduction to the role of the doctor in a continuing historical context.”- Rosemary Stevens, Ph.D., DeWitt Wallace Distinguished Scholar, Weill Cornell Medical College
“Paul Stepansky’s In the Hands of Doctors is a unique and compelling reexamination of American medical practice and patient expectations in historical and cultural context. Examining the many ways in which we seek health, literally from the doctor’s touch, Stepansky draws on his skills as a respected cultural historian and his perspective growing up the son of a rural general practitioner in the 1950s and 1960s. The result is a multilayered, nuanced, and accessible study that focuses on what physicians have offered and patients have sought, especially since the Second World War. . . . This book deserves a wide audience not only of health practitioners and patients, but also of medical historians and medical humanities scholars.” – Howard I. Kushner, Ph.D., Nat C. Robertson Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University
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Thank Paul for this beautiful and moving account. It has certainly helped me to think of ways forward in these hard days.