American Hunger and Homelessness

Marshall sent me to the grocery store two nights ago to buy a whole chicken for dinner – so I bought a whole raw chicken and set it on the counter.

“What is this?” he asked in confusion.

“It’s a chicken babe,” I explained. “You asked me to buy a whole chicken.”

He looked at me morosely.

“Why would you buy a raw chicken at seven o’clock at night?”

“What do you mean? You just cut it up and put it in the pan! It only takes a few minutes to cook.”

“No, Malaka. It’s going to take me an hour to cut and cook up all this chicken.”

He explained the process like I had the word “retard” emblazoned across my forehead. I bristled and turned indignant.

“Well…did you say to buy a cooked chicken?” I said in retort.

“No,” he replied. But I would have assumed you had the common sense to leave raw poultry at the store when the kids need to be fed, bathed and in bed in an hour his face said silently.

Defeated, I jumped back into the car to return the lifeless bird that I had purchased just 20 minutes before. I was suddenly aware how its cold, dead skin pressed against the tightly sealed clear plastic. It looked oddly unappealing in its uncooked state, and I was glad to return it with the prospect of getting a golden rotisserie baked replacement.

I placed the bird on the returns counter at Publix, explaining the reason for the needed exchange.

“I was supposed to get a cooked bird,” I said.

The cashier smiled quietly, issued my refund and slapped a bright orange sticker on the dead poultry.




“Are you going to throw that chicken away?” I asked.

“Yes,” she confirmed. “We throw all returned produce and meat away.”

  My friend Caroline had accompanied me to the store, and we looked at each other with surprise at the news. The bird had set me back $7.00, and I suddenly felt compelled to repurchase it. Perhaps I could give it to someone else? There is a hunger epidemic in America after all, and we even have an impoverished muppet on Sesame Street serving as an ambassador for the poor to highlight the problem. Why are we throwing away perfectly good food?

I battled with whether or not to buy back the chicken until common sense prevailed. For one thing, it was not in the budget. For another, it was not going to change Publix’s policy on discarding groceries. I left the bird to its less dignified fate…a date with the dumpster.

This event got me thinking about the major social issues plaguing this nation at the moment. The unemployment/underemployment rate has affected all areas of many individual’s lives, food and lodging being the primary two. The epidemic has hit really close to home for us, as we now have a good friend who was forced out of her apartment for the reasons named above and is essentially living on our sofa bed. When she told me she was “homeless”, I poo-pooed at the thought.

“Come and live with me!” I screeched excitedly. I relished the thought of having another adult in the house for reinforcement. The kids outnumber me 4-to-1 during the day until Marshall gets home. My enthusiasm for her co-lodging with me was entirely self-serving.

A day later, she arrived with some of her possessions in garbage bags. The rest was locked up in storage. As we found space in our two bedroom home for her belongings, I gave further thought to her words – or one word in particular: Homeless.

As a (hybrid) Ghanaian, the concept of homeless is very different than what Americans typically connote it to mean for me. In Ghana, if you’ve got parents, friends or any extended family with a house, you therefore also ‘have’ a house by association. The only truly ‘homeless’ in our ranks are the mad men who roam the streets, and their faculties are so shattered that they wouldn’t know the difference either way.

Sometimes I read the news and catch glimpses of tales of parents living in tent cities while their children dwell in brick and mortar homes. Sometimes I hear of whole families drifting from homeless shelter to homeless shelter trying to wait out the financial storm they’ve suddenly found themselves in. Do these people not have friends or loved ones, I wonder? Do they not have strong enough relationships with anyone who would happily take them in? I don’t see how this can be in AMERICA.

And it shouldn’t be.

This is indeed a land of plenty. In every major city in this country, there are whole  blocks of abandoned homes that could be used for temporary housing if anyone could be bothered to tackle the red tape and bureaucracy needed to facilitate that transition. But that’s the problem isn’t it? No one really wants to be bothered. Its a truly thankless undertaking, and both the private and government sector would frustrate any such good Samaritan   or social entrepreneur at every turn. Add to that, we are a nation that prides itself on being built on individuals pulling themselves up by their own boot straps, and daggonit, if you DON’T happen to own a pair of boots, you better find a calf, skin it, tan it and and learn how to make your own boots! What would you look like suckling at the teat of someone else’s effort? If you want to live in a house, you need to wait until you can afford one yourself.

I believe in the American work ethic that drives this boot strap philosophy; however I also believe that we should neither be dumping fresh meat nor our loved ones in the midst of this crisis. Compassion much, anyone?