Two days before Thanksgiving last year, I received an email from one.org, an organization dedicated to the eradication of hunger, poverty and AIDS. I am a member because I believe there is no excuse, given the vast quantity of resources consumed and wasted on this planet, that humans have yet to attack these issues with the same vigor applied to war, weapons development, or the search for oil.
The email called for a Thanksgiving fast to raise awareness and consciousness. It envisioned a Thanksgiving meal attended by 18 people. Three would sit comfortably at the table feasting on everything. Six would be given uncomfortable chairs, eating rice and beans with a spoon. And nine would sit on mats, eating rice with their fingers. I needn't explain the symbolism behind this approach.
Almost a billion people on earth are hungry. Sixteen thousand children die from hunger-related causes every day; that's six million per year. More than 50 nations (most in sub-Saharan Africa) do not produce enough food to feed their population. In the United States, almost 40 million Americans, including 14 million children, are insecure about sufficient food at any given time.
We have seen the media-provided images of starvation from other countries. We have read the news about huge increases in food pantry usage in the U.S. over the last several years. Second Harvest reports that emergency food assistance in this country rose 8% between 2001 and 2004, up to 25 million people.
These harsh realities have long weighed heavily upon me. So, twice a year for the last decade, I've performed a four- to seven-day water fast. These fasts serve as semi-annual reminders to myself of how fortunate I am to have enjoyed a lifetime of worry-free access to unlimited food. Because of my fasting experience, I immediately appreciated the Thanksgiving-fast idea from one.org.
At the same time, I knew this idea was unlikely to be embraced by my family, despite their very real concern about these issues. Instead of trying to persuade them, I conjured an alternative.
I resolved to spend the entire day with my family cooking and serving and watching football. And I'd not eat or drink a single thing - between dinner the night before and breakfast the morning after.
Perhaps it was because of the ridiculous feast rolling towards us like a slow avalanche, but breakfast was eaten on the fly and I didn't miss it much. There was no such thing as lunch, in the traditional sense. It was more like 15 mini-courses scattered throughout the afternoon. Food was everywhere and my stomach was starting to howl in protest.
It was already decided that this Thanksgiving would be a vegetarian one. I was very proud of my turkey-craving family for its sacrifice.
I've been a vegetarian for almost 17 years. I've made this choice for a number of reasons, prominently including considerations of equality, hunger and sustainability. There is no denying that a vegetarian meal is lower on the food chain and far more sustainable for the planet.
Animals raised for food are fed more than 70% of the grains produced in the U.S. It takes 22 pounds of grain to make a single pound of meat. The earth's meat animals, alone, consume food equivalent to the caloric needs of nine billion people. Some studies estimate that the world produces, currently, enough vegetarian food to feed 15 billion people. About 1.4 billion people could be fed with the grain and soybeans we feed U.S. cattle alone.
Going vegetarian, of course, is quite different from going hungry. My family had a green bean casserole, tofurkey, gravy, potatoes, sweet potatoes, homemade stuffing, salad, pumpkin pie, wine and beer.
I was in the kitchen the entire time - cooking, stirring, preparing, baking, mixing, and smelling. Everything the holiday cook would normally do, except tasting.
Despite all my fasting experience, this wasn't easy. Football was on in the background, snacks were everywhere, and it was Thanksgiving. Parts of me I forgot existed were screaming, "Eat! Eat! Eat!" Eventually, these parts became desperate: "At least drink some water!" The fast forced me to acknowledge a sad fact: Thanksgiving really is about food. Everything else comes in a distant second.
Finally, the table was set and the food carted in, platter after platter. I asked my grandmother if she was upset I was fasting. "How can I be mad when I know why you are doing this?" she asked me. "I wish you were eating, but I understand and am proud of you."
The next day, my mother and I were in the car together. "It was really hard to eat last night with you fasting. I know you are doing this for yourself, but you really should think about the impact your actions have on others."
"Mom, I told you to just pretend I was eating."
"I know, but that didn't really work. I kept looking at you and seeing your empty plate. And it made it really hard to eat. I still managed to do it, but it was hard."
"Well, maybe there's something to that, mom. Maybe it's okay that it was hard. Because Thanksgiving isn't really about going without, it's about appreciating what you have. If you struggled to eat, maybe you thought a little harder about how fortunate you were to have the food that you did have. I'm okay with that."
And so was she.
Because, in reality, it's not just Thanksgiving. It's every day. It is easy to think about a billion people going hungry and decide there's nothing we can do about it. But the reality is that we can.
We can eat lower down the food chain and support sustainable agriculture. We can demand that our elected officials take this humanitarian crisis seriously and refocus priorities. And we can try to actually do something to help those people who have to worry about access to food.
I'm not sure how I'll handle the food issue this Thanksgiving. But I know one thing: I have much to be thankful for and will spend some time doing so.
Citizen is an occasional forum for Isthmus readers. Brian Solomon is a state employee and member of the Madison Common Council.