Welcome to Love of Place. Most of my work celebrates our connection to the natural world.

My new eco science fiction Knocking on Heaven's Door is just released. A number of early reviewers have been enthusiastic, including the website Geeks of Doom, which makes me smile. Not many people know me as a geek of doom! But I am happy to embrace the complexity of my personality.

I'm also so pleased that Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World has been awarded the 2016 John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing, as well as the 2014 WILLA Award for Creative Nonfiction from Women Writing the West.

My historical fantasy Teresa of the New World won the 2015 Arizona Authors Association Award for best Children's Literature and was a finalist for the New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards.

These are nice landmarks in a writer's life. I would be writing regardless--but, still, whew. It's good to have some encouragement.

Feel free to contact me at http://www.sharmanaptrussell.com or through my author Facebook page, Sharman Apt Russell.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Speech for "Hunger for Knowledge," a fund-raising dinner for The Volunteer Center in Silver City, New Mexico, at the Bayard Community Center, November 4th, 5:30-7 p.m. This dinner has been organized by Dr. Bailey's Social Inequality class at Western New Mexico University.

I’m going to talk about my relationship to the backpack program Alimento para el Nino. Some of you have heard parts of this story before, and I apologize for that, but most of you have not and it seems the most appropriate thing for me to talk about tonight.

In 2004, when I was writing a book on the science of hunger, I visited the office of the Roadrunner Food Bank in Albuquerque and learned about the backpack program they had in northern New Mexico. Every Friday at school they sent backpacks of snacks to thousands of children going hungry over the weekend. In that office, I saw posted a child’s drawing, not much of a drawing really but a series of splotches of brown and black. Someone had asked the little boy what the drawing meant and he replied, “This is a man who is angry because he just wants food.”

Like most of you, I have a very strong connection to food. I wake up thinking, hmmm, what is there good for breakfast, and then at some point I think—that’s what I want for lunch! And then I feel that same anticipatory pleasure about dinner. I love food. You love food. And so we should. Our relationship to food is a kind of miracle. We pick up an apple or a hamburger, a plant or an animal, and then we transform it--like a magician!--into the movement of our lungs, into this gesturing of hands, into feeding a cat, into writing a poem or repairing a broken pipe. We take food and transform it into our lives. If we don’t have food, there is no transformation, and ultimately, there is no life.

Think for a moment how much comfort and pleasure and satisfaction food gives you. Think of the few times when you have also felt that primal voice that rises up in us when we miss a meal for some reason, or miss two meals, and that voice says: I don’t care what your lunch special is today! Just get me something! Our bodies are designed to be very insistent when they are not getting the calories they need. Our stomach sends up hormones to the brain. Our brains sends down hormones to the stomach. The process of digestions starts and then stops and then just waits. Impatiently. A lot of activity is going on and it’s all about one thing. We are chemically designed to be addicted to food, particularly to some foods like sugar and fat, because…food is life. Food is who we are.

Back to that drawing by that little boy in Albuquerque. Here in New Mexico, one in four children and one in six seniors do not always know when or where they will get their next meal. Now, when I saw that drawing, I didn’t really think in terms of the science of what was going on that child’s body. I didn’t think in terms of serious malnutrition or starvation because that’s not really what most hungry people experience in America. My concern was cultural. I thought: what would it be like to be a child in America surrounded by such an abundance of food, by so much food everywhere, and not have enough for myself? To be a child and to know that the adults in my life were not taking care of my most basic needs? At the other end of the narrative, what would it be like to be a senior—to be sick, to be poor, to be forgotten—and to know that the people around you do not care to make sure you have enough food? What would it be like, at the beginning of your life…when you are starting out as child full of hope and expectation…and to know at the end of your life…when things have to finally make sense, when this is your last experience of the world…what would it be like to know that your culture, America, doesn’t really care?

My next thought was more personal. America is not some strange foreign land. I live in America. I am one of the adults in these children’s lives, particularly in the children who live here in Grant County. I am one of the adults who don’t seem to care about them.

I came back from that experience thinking that giving kids a backpack of snacks to take home on the weekend really didn’t sound that difficult. I am a mother of two children. I’ve stuffed plenty of snacks into plenty of backpacks. It sounded doable. I was also on the school board in Silver City at that time, and I felt confident that I could get help from my own school district. And I thought the program would be fairly small. This was my own denial kicking in. I couldn’t imagine that there were that many children going hungry over the weekend in my own sweet little hometown, but for those who were, we needed to do something.

This was the kind of project for which every door opened. It was a joy. The school board, the school superintendent, the principals, the teachers, the social workers—everyone said yes. Come to the schools and give children food for the weekend. These people know that the work of learning can’t take place without food. There has to be that transformation. The transformation of food into math, into reading, into writing. The Volunteer Center said yes. They would be our fiscal agent. They would provide a pantry. They would provide volunteers. Then the community said yes. Businesses gave money. People wrote checks. Even today, people who clearly don’t have much money themselves, send in five or ten or twenty dollars a week. Everyone said the same thing: of course, we want to feed our children. That’s what adults are supposed to do.

The surprise was how many children needed this service. We began in 2005 with two pilot programs at Harrison-Schmitt and Sixth Street and we had enough money for ten or twelve kids. A small program for a handful of kids. Immediately we saw that we needed enough money and food and backpacks for thirty children, and then fifty, and then hundred. We expanded into all the schools in the Silver district and then into the Cobre schools. This all happened very fast in the first year. Today the Volunteer Center is fully in charge of this program and we have almost two hundred children in the Cobre elementary schools and two hundred in the Silver City schools who take home backpacks over the weekend.

Who are these kids? I have met with a number of them over the years, usually in groups arranged by the school social worker and counselor, and I have talked to the school staff. Many of these children live in homes where both parents or a single parent works at a minimum wage job; if you have done the math in terms of the take home pay of a minimum wage job, then you know that there often isn’t enough to pay for rent and food, for propane and food, for medicine and food, for car expenses and food. Real wages are not keeping up with the cost of living. More and more of these kids live with grandparents who don’t work and who survive on minimum Social Security and savings. Some kids come from homes where there is substance abuse or mental illness or where a parent has suddenly died or been imprisoned. Some of these kids are not particularly skinny; all of them probably suffer from a diet high in fat and low in fresh vegetables and fruit. And that’s typical of poverty in America where a Big Mac really is cheaper than a fresh salad with dried cranberries and those fun glazed walnuts. These kids come from diverse backgrounds because there are diverse reasons why both kids and adults are hungry in New Mexico.

It’s time for me to close. I’m going to say briefly why I think there is hunger in America, the land of plenty. I don’t think it’s because we are uncaring as individuals. I think it’s because we have chosen as a society, as a group, not to see food as a basic human right—much as we don’t see health care as a basic human right. And so we haven’t embedded this right into our institutions. We don’t work to make Food Stamps and WIC and Meals on Wheels wonderfully functional because we are still arguing about whether we should even fund these programs. We don’t work for a livable wage because we haven’t agreed that there should be one. Once we make that decision—once we agree that everyone in America has a right to food—then we will get everyone food just like we get them postal service and electricity and other services that we consider basic to being American. We will do this because we are efficient and smart and because we have a lot of resources. And because we are efficient and smart, we’ll know that we have to have a broader vision of health and good nutrition and sustainability. So we will also, as a society, support community gardens and local farmers, and we’ll have neighborhood cooking classes, and we will teach people how to grow vegetables and can and even market their excess produce, and it will be great. These are things, of course, that The Volunteer Center is trying to do right now. Because in the meantime, while we wait for the rest of America to catch up, we want to start here in Grant County.

Now I am really going to close. And I’m going to give you that statistic again: in New Mexico one in four children and one in six seniors do not always know when or where they will get their next meal. If you are like me, statistics don’t stay with you very long. They’re like rain on a rain slicker. I don’t know how many times I have heard how many acres of rainforest are being destroyed this minute, and how many nuclear war heads there are in the world, and I just seem to forget five minutes after I’m told—even though this is important information, even though I care about this information.

More than the statistic, I can remember that child’s drawing, those blobs of brown and black. I am fortunate in that I also have a collection of drawings from children in Grant County thanking Alimento para el Nino for their snacks and I’ll show you this one—I know you can’t see the detail but maybe you can see the color. There’s the child here in a circle of orange and she’s smiling. I think this is an upstairs room, maybe a staircase, a spiral of green, a Tv, a desk that looks like a spider flattened out without perspective, maybe two siblings or her parents. It’s a second-graders drawing and it’s rich and complex and hopeful, and it’s what we want for all our children.

Thank you.


6p00e54ece6c1b8833 said...

Sharman, What a beautiful talk. Thank you for posting it and for starting the backpacks for kids program in Silver and the surrounding area. I'm going to take that idea to friends in Colorado and see what we can do in our little town. Bless you! Susan

Anonymous said...

I read your words, and I wanted to weep. It is hard to help when you have limited resources, but I do believe what you are doing is right. It should come from the willingness and openness of one's heart. Maybe many people are uninformed. I don't like to see people go without, especially children and elderly. Many give much benevolences through their churches, etc. What you are doing is very beautiful. As an elementary teacher in the past, I would see my students laid out on the desk from discouragement (maybe hunger)..too tardy to school to have the breakfast. I began bringing snacks (fruit, peanut butter, etc. ) . The students had permission to go to the snack table as they wanted, in an orderly fashion, and help themselves. The only rule was "Think of others." They did. I never had to correct a child from taking too much. Fortunately, I had small special education classes. We never know what a child has gone through.
Please be encouraged and overjoyed in this endeavor. It is beautiful. I hope we all as American's will return to charitable giving through each of our channels, and be content with less stuff, because as Walt Whitman did say, "I love all children and all women are mine..."
They are our children.
May the Lord bless this kind heart of yours and increase your seed sown, for more seed, for the children. I hope this could be done across all New Mexico.