Ed. Notes: Yesterday we learned how Marti Forman got from there to here, and today through an article that appeared in the Fall 2005 KIDS Newsletter w


Jen Chapin

Ed. Notes: Yesterday we learned how Marti Forman got from there to here, and today through an article that appeared in the Fall 2005 KIDS Newsletter we learn what propelled Jen Chapin to roll up her sleeves and devote her life's work to making a difference in the lives of all concerned with making this planet a better place for all who share it.

Growing Up With Hunger
By Jen Chapin

I grew up with hunger. Not that I was ever deprived of nutritious food, or was raised in one of the millions of families that have to make those impossible budgeting choices between rent, medicine, or fresh vegetables. No, rather I was raised as the child of two hunger-fighting activists in a home where the issue was never far from our family consciousness. My mother Sandy is an educator, businesswomman and poet, who while raising 5 children has always been involved in one community effort or another for the arts, civil rights, peace and justice. My father Harry was a performing songwriter who used his public profile and indomitable energy to raise awareness, money and political will for a variety of progressive causes. They were united in the belief that individuals and small committed groups of people can make an impact in improving their communities, and both saw hunger as the fundamental issue of our time.

In the 70s, I was a little girl, and we were all learning. My dad dove into books by the experts, coming to understand that (as Frances Moore Lappé would later write): hunger was not caused by a scarcity of food but rather by a scarcity of democracy. Harry effectively lobbied for the creation of a Commission on World Hunger under President Carter and, with that group of legislators and citizens, learned more -- and started pressing for action. In 1975, after a series of in-depth conversations with his friend Bill Ayres, they started WHY (World Hunger Year). My mother was a guiding force, constantly asked the probing questions of what does and does not make sense in this world, and pointing toward innovative solutions. My older sister Jaime spent her 16th summer working in a hospital for malnourished kids in Haiti, and studied issues of Latin American poverty and development in college. My dad died in 1981, but by the time I was in high school, hunger-fighting heroes like Frankie Lappé and Larry Brown were as well known to me as pop stars, benefits were as regular as soccer games, and questioning the utility of trade vs. aid or domestic farm subsidies were part of my adolescent wonderings.

Hunger was one thing – though intellectually understood, it was still an abstraction, even as conditions in America brought it increasingly closer to home. Food was another. After-school friends would complain about the lack of sweet and salty snack options in our fridge, but we had plenty. Yet real food was also abstract in its way. My dad was in and out at all hours and ate accordingly. He would spout statistics about nutrition, pesticides, and industrial agriculture, make quips about the high plastic content of junk food, and then wolf down a greasy sandwich or sugared snack cake. For my mom, with 5 kids, two constantly-ringing phone lines and multiple manic schedules, food was definitely more about necessity than carefully-selected ingredients, gourmet cooking or settled family time. She would affectionately quote her own father saying, of his own lack of interest in food: “ I eat to live, I don’t live to eat.” She took this as her own mantra, paying homage to Calvinist roots and the tacit warning that too much attention to food would be a decadent waste of time and effort. So while in the world we paid attention to how food acted as the commodity of life, death and justice, at home we treated it with the uniquely American mix of ambivalence, guilt, convenience and often, wastefulness.

At some point I left home for college to and began to create my own relationship with food. I studied International Relations and learned more about the causes of hunger and poverty while discovering ethnic restaurants, the Nuyorican cooking of a Spanish Harlem-raised friend, and the procrastination-enabling potential of the University cafeteria. During my studies at Brown University and later at Berklee College of Music, meals became a bonding ritual with friends and a window into different cultures and mores. I began to appreciate flavors both wild and subtle, and to enjoy the languorous tempo of a lunch shared with a non-American. I began to shop for myself and to cook, and to think about diet and nutrition in new ways. I loved the decisions and rituals of food preparation, and I loved to eat, though it was a guilty pleasure tainted by the suspicion that I should just hurry up and get the job done -- that my time would be best spent elsewhere.

Later, I moved to New York and began working as a musician and teacher. I joined the WHY Board and became involved with KIDS Can Make a Difference. Sometime in the mid-90s Larry and Jane Levine asked if I would represent KIDS at a “Just Food” conference in Brooklyn, and I had a small epiphany over lunch when a NYC restaurateur spoke of the intrinsic value to the world of something so simple as growing and eating your own basil on the windowsill. This seed of an affirmation stayed with me as I continued to carve out my own beliefs and behaviors around food: maybe my caring about the immediate concern of what I would eat that afternoon was not a distraction from the big picture of caring about hungry people. Maybe the two were connected.

The fight against hunger and poverty has not gotten any simpler, but from where I’m sitting, things have gotten a little more integrated and a little more clear. The American public is questioning our food security and corporatized food systems as never before, and consumers of diverse backgrounds and incomes are demanding and enjoying increased access to natural, organic, and local food. The obesity epidemic has illuminated the reality that poor nutrition transcends class boundaries and requires immediate action. Environmental concerns, though still woefully dampened by collective denial, are making new connections to society and seeking new allies. Citizens are learning how government policies “harvest poverty” abroad by unsustainably subsidizing farm products at home. We are learning that even by the most Machiavellian view, everyone benefits when more people are well nourished and self-reliant. Everyone and everything is connected.

Living in Brooklyn now and nursing my three-week old son, my husband and I have never been more happily aware of how our own eating choices are connected to food justice in the wider world. During my pregnancy, keeping a food diary made the growing baby’s development more tangible and meaningful when he was still a peanut. Now, a ritual of our family life is our weekly walk to the farmer’s market 2 blocks away, where producers from upstate, Long Island and New Jersey accept food stamp coupons and cash from a diverse neighborhood clientele for their farm-fresh produce. My husband might be inspired by an offering of tart plums to make his French mother’s recipe for custardy clafoutis, or I might select vegetables to make a big pot of chili. Over breakfast, we talk about how we will help our son make his own healthy and sustainable food choices in the face of marketing and peer pressure. We savor the knowledge that we will guide him well and that our meal has traveled far less than the average 1500 miles from farm to plate. We take a moment to enjoy our local yogurt and feel pleased with ourselves – and then we remember that there is much work to be done.

Jen Chapin is a performing songwriter, educator, and Chair of WHY (World Hunger Year)’s Board of Directors. Her latest album is called “Linger.”

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