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Thanksgiving table talk is different when the table is empty

The Rev. Barbara Edema

I have my list. I’ve checked it twice. I’ll go to the grocery store and buy the feast. Thanksgiving is in a few days, and our table will be full of people and full of food. It will be a day of festivities and over-filled stomachs.

Table talk will be lively in our home, which will be full of the smells of turkey, bubbling cranberries, and spicy pumpkin pie.

Thanksgiving. Family. Friends. Food. Conversation.

I volunteer at our church’s food bank — similar organizations near Alpena can be found on the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan website. People living in the surrounding zip codes may come once a month and choose the food they need to feed their families.

Let me repeat that: They may come once a month. Being a mother of four, I can easily see that the food they receive, although several bags, is not enough to feed a family for a month.

But our clients are thankful.

Sometimes, our clients have to leave work early to get to the food bank before we close at 3:30 p.m. Sometimes, working moms and dads race in and choose the food they need before our doors are locked. They work full-time, yet are unable to take care of the needs of their families. Bills need to be paid. Sometimes, medical care is a burden.

And, of course, food. Everyone needs food on the table.

A cruel irony in the midst of the struggle occurs when a mom or dad gets a small raise at work and they can lose some of the help they need from assistance programs. Things like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), child care, or medical coverage. The small raise leaves them in worse poverty than if they made less money. That not only confounds me, it angers me.

When I see those who are unable to work for myriad reasons beyond their control are blamed for being “lazy,” it not only confounds me, it angers me.

Judgment of people’s circumstances by those who are too comfortable for their own good must end.

Food banks are not the final answer to end hunger. I wish I could work myself out of the food bank (as much as I enjoy being part of it), because I wish we didn’t have children, women, and men, who are food-insecure. I wish our policymakers made sure that the poorest members of our society felt secure in every way. I wish education was the best in the country for our little ones. I wish a living wage was paid to all those who go to work every day and yet cannot support their needs. I wish medical bills did not leave people in poverty. I wish our veterans were cared for and respected for all they have given.

Philanthropy is important, but the realization of all those wishes will require change in policy.

Public policies must take the lead in ensuring economic security, health and well-being for all Michiganders, and following organizations like the Michigan League for Public Policy is one way to help in the fight for economic and social justice in our state.

As a clergywoman, I believe in the God-ness of the people I meet. I believe we are all called to lift up those who struggle and smooth the bumps in their roads.

Thanksgiving is a day of family, friends, and food. It is also a day to remember those in our neighborhoods who won’t have a feast, or enough, or anything.

Our food bank will distribute Thanksgiving baskets this week. The list of clients is long, and there is a waiting list for those who hope they might receive something. But there’s a chance they won’t. We can’t feed them all, nor should we be expected to. It is up to our policymakers to ensure that our state policies support greater access to food assistance.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently announced a change in policy that will increase the asset limit on food assistance and will make it easier for families to receive assistance when they need it. That is a great first step, but the best step would be for the Legislature to use its power to eliminate the asset test altogether.

Table talk is fun when we are surrounded by those we love and the abundance of food we share.

Table talk is more difficult when the cupboards are bare, and the table is empty.

The Rev. Barbara Edema, of DeWitt, is a partner with the Michigan League for Public Policy.