Archive for December, 2007

And All the Trimmings

Sunday, December 23rd, 2007

Celebrities stand along tables, ladles in hand, dishing up large portions of meat, dressing, coleslaw, and rolls on the grounds of the Capitol. It must be Thanksgiving. A time when our nation has collectively decided that no one should be allowed to go hungry.

Stories will pour out of Iraq and Afghanistan, maybe the President will appear for a photo-op, chowing-down with “the troops.” And we’ll hear the evening news anchors talk about how the service personnel, despite being in the midst of a war, got Thanksgiving turkey meals, “with all the trimmings.” Got to have those trimmings.

And we all have this warm and fuzzy feeling, watching the grimy and the unwashed, the neatly-clothed and the threadbare, the Mom with kids in tattered clothes; as they sit along tables, devouring the food and cider, so grateful for this one holiday meal.

And the next day? What of the next day?

The soup kitchens will still be open, but the donations will fall off and the staffs of Arlington Street Peoples’ Assistance Network, Arlington Food Assistance Center, St. George’s Food Pantry, So Others Might Eat, Martha’s Table, and so many more will struggle to keep up the feeding. Because the men, women and children with empty stomachs are just as poor and just as hungry on the big Friday-after-Thanksgiving shopping day as they were on the annual volunteer day before.

A startling statistic appeared in the big paper on the other side of the river yesterday. A former food distribution director from Connecticut reported that “35 million Americans” line up each day at “soup kitchens, food banks and food stamp offices” across the U.S. That’s almost 12 percent of our total population!

According to the Food Research and Action Center, “Each [hungry] household has its own experience of what these numbers mean, from families having to decide between buying adequate food, keeping current on rent or heating their house to parents who skip meals so their children can eat.”

We complain about taxes, worry about cable bills, wonder what we’ll wear this Christmas. Yet we’ve got neighbors in women’s shelters, the Sullivan House shelter, and untold numbers who shiver under overpasses and along the bike trail, in building shadows and on heating grates. And it’s all happening in our proud and prosperous County.

We in Arlington don’t turn our eyes away and do give generously to the shelters and food banks, but what has gone wrong with a nation that tolerates people living on its streets and families tucking hungry children into bed each night?

There was a time when we had a president who forcefully declared a “War on Poverty,” creating a “Great Society” that would eliminate poverty and racial injustice through such programs as the Job Corps, Head Start, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), Medicaid, Medicare, urban renewal, and federal aid to education, to name just a few.

Imagine — a federal government which, before it slipped into yet another hope-killing war, made as its central purpose the “raising of all boats,” so the blessings of our society could be shared by even the least among us.

That people-oriented government has disappeared at the national level, where precious hundreds of billions of dollars — that could have been used to guarantee food and healthcare, jobs and housing — have instead been used to buy weapons that kill people in a nation that had done us no harm.

Will hope return to Washington to restore a society of good for all? Or will Arlington have to struggle each day to find places to live and food to eat for those whom today’s society has neglected or ignored?

The endless national presidential ‘debates,’ which should be discussions on what kind of nation we want to be, have turned into ‘gotcha’ moments that have centered on driver’s licenses and who really ‘supports the troops,’ the code words of the moment for continuous waging of war.

Will we ever have a Thanksgiving without soup lines? One that can, instead, focus the TV cameras on home and hearth and hope for tomorrow?

We have it in our power to decide whether trimmings are enough, in a land where too many of us lack a healthy home with a solid table on which to put them.

Nick Penning ( is an Arlington, Va., freelance writer. His column, “Penning Thoughts,” appears in alternating editions of The Arlington Connection.