HUNGER is the cruelest of contradictions in American life. That a nation possessed of such wealth should harbor increasing numbers of desperately malnourished people is both a mystery and a crime.
The twin problems of waste and want are at once so widespread and so subtle that they seem to swamp any efforts an individual might muster. Surely only governments possess the resources to make a difference.
Not so, says Carolyn North, a dancer and writer in Berkeley, Calif. She was wondering what to do with Thanksgiving leftovers a decade ago when it occurred to her that many of her neighbors might also be wondering the same thing. On her street alone, the discarded remains of the Thanksgiving feast would yield several hundred pounds of food.
Then she thought about all the surplus food cast into the trash each day at all the restaurants and bakeries in Berkeley, a city obsessed with its taste buds and indulged by a highly-spiced masala of ethnic cuisines. A few days later, she found herself watching an old man rummaging through a trash bin for his lunch.
Struck by the absurd contradiction between gratuitous waste and grinding poverty, she decided to establish a one-person delivery service between the haves and the hungry. Once a week she picked up surplus food from a nearby restaurant - Top Dog, a no-frills hotdog shop whose wieners she relishes - and delivered it to the local Emergency Food Project.
When she tired of doing it daily by herself, she asked a friend to help. Her friend, a writer for a local newspaper, described their little hunger project in a column, asking for five more volunteers to cover the other five days of the week.
"The phone rang off the hook," recalls Ms. North. Thirty people called, and she invited them to a little potluck dessert party. "Everyone had a skill or service to offer," she says. "This person was willing to make a Friday run, that person knew a restaurant owner. It's been a decade now, and it's grown in scope to more than 100 deliveries a day, more than 15 tons of food a month delivered to over 30 feeding programs. But it still operates out of a shoe box, index cards, and my kitchen telephone."
How does she find volunteers willing to work for no money and suppliers willing to donate goods for no profit? "I just put the word out and they come," she says. Nothing is solicited.
"Since there are no expenses, we have no budget." And with no budget, no office, no boss, and no staff. No money changes hands. Everything, from supplies to labor, is freely given.
The project has expanded to include a garden a few hours north that has yielded five tons of food for Daily Bread's soup kitchens; a fruit-gleaning project harvesting backyard trees; the bulk-buying of rice and beans for distribution; and a milk-for-kids coupon project in local supermarkets.
TO prevent the kind of burnout that often exhausts volunteer spirits, North structures Daily Bread so that no one's burden is very large.
Though she made no effort to spread the word, her project was mentioned in a national journal not noted for its social concern. The article drew hundreds of inquiries from around the country, and eventually the world. She answered each inquiry with a small sheaf of instructions for starting one's own food project. Some 1,000 or more food delivery projects have been spawned in the United States and overseas.
"Assume that people want to do something about hunger," she counsels. "If only they knew what to do." "Party first!" she commands (in a satiric spin of the old communist dictum), stressing the importance of building a sense of community from the outset among volunteers, suppliers, and recipients. "If the atmosphere is impersonal and business-like, it won't work.
"On one level, we are delivering food," she writes. "But on a deeper level we are helping to change consciousness. When a volunteer enters the back door of a restaurant, he greets the kitchen staff, shares a joke, talks for a bit. Food changes hands.
"Friendships are formed. With each meeting, people may feel a tiny bit less helpless than they did before. The whole transaction, minor in itself, has heartened everyone involved."
Why does Daily Bread seem almost effortless when conventional aid projects struggle? "It's a self-sustaining system," says North. "Everybody involved is fed by the interaction, so everybody wants to do it again."
A Daily Bread volunteer says, "I stop by the bakery, and as they hand me the loaves, the bakers tell me, `Thank you, thank you!' Then I drive over to the soup kitchen, and all the cooks tell me, `Thank you, thank you!' How many things can you do in this world that get such immediate, positive feedback?"
Inspired by Carolyn's example, I joined a friend one Saturday in the parish hall of a local church, where we and two dozen other volunteers served a few hundred homeless people a gourmet dinner of spaghetti spiced with turkey sausage, salad with a homemade dressing, and crusty loaves of hearty whole-grain garlic toast, the last a courtesy of Daily Bread.
Threadbare, and by necessity often unwashed, men, women, and children received their plates with a gratitude any mother would envy. Halfway through the meal, a man with wild grey hair stood up, a piece of Daily Bread in hand, and shouted over the convivial confusion of dinner conversation: "Let's give these people a hand for such a wonderful meal!" The hall resounded with applause and cheers. Though not present, Carolyn North could rest assured that her plan was working.