Never again will I take a banana for granted.
According to the USDA, 114.9 million US households are food secure. I’m lucky to be among them. And last week, I stumbled downstairs, bleary eyed, just like always. I poured my coffee and reached into the fruit basket, as with hundreds of mornings before. But this time, it was empty, save for a few sad bulbs of garlic. My toddler had eaten the last one.
Normally I would’ve just grabbed some yogurt. But there wasn’t any yogurt, either. Fine, then, toast. No luck — we only had enough bread for my kids’ sandwiches at lunch. I finally unearthed an old granola bar from my third-grader’s backpack, a bittersweet reminder of the days when, you know, he actually went to school. Then I went upstairs to log onto Amazon Fresh for the fifth time that morning to check for a delivery window.
Miraculously, one popped up. My cart was ready for action. I held my breath during the final transaction — that limbo from “continue” to “checkout” — to see if the order would, in fact, go through. It did. Our bananas and bread (plus brownie mix and Triscuits) would arrive in two days.
I grew up with a full fridge and became an adult for whom restaurants were a hobby and shopping was an afterthought. Not once in my life have I experienced the pervasive, silent pang of food insecurity. It was something I understood in the abstract, when volunteering with Meals on Wheels in Washington, D.C., or at Arlington EATS in suburban Massachusetts, where 1 in 10 people doesn’t have enough to eat. I packed the food; I made the deliveries; I appealed for donations. I absorbed the statistics, gave money, did what I could.
But never did I go hungry. I’d park my car in front of the mammoth apartment towers in upper Northwest, D.C., ride the elevator with my saggy plastic bags, and wait for locks to slide and doors to crack. I’d drop off my deliveries and ride back down again, empty-handed. Sometimes I’d sit in my car and cry afterward. And then I’d go out for brunch.
Until now. Like millions of Americans, my days of instant grocery gratification are gone. The fact that I even have access to food — and maintain the means to buy it — makes me enormously fortunate.
This mess has inconvenienced me, not leveled me. But it’s also made me appreciative in ways that will linger long after this pandemic ends. I open my fridge, filled with oddments that normally would go bad but now really need to be used, and I think: You idiot; do you know how lucky you are, to wonder what you’ll do with all that tuna?
Cooking, meanwhile, has taken on a meditative quality. An onion isn’t an onion anymore; it’s something to be treasured, I think, deliberately dicing it for meatloaf to bring to my parents. When pouring milk into my coffee, I measure it carefully: only a splash or two, no longer a careless stream. The ketchup and the barbecue sauce are turned upside down now, to squeeze out every last drop, soldiers in a middle-class fridge battle. When I make lunch for my kids and scrape the bottom of the jelly jar with the knife, I know it’s not as simple as just running out to Market Basket for more. It’s a plan, it’s a strategy, and it’s exhausting. And it’s nothing like what millions face every day, COVID-19 or not, in order to obtain food.
We’re all grappling to find silver linings these days, and there are few to be had. But there are ways this will improve us, I think. For the first time, many of us can’t get the food we want, when we want it. Our sense of security has been threatened. We have to make do with whatever’s on hand, and settle for the midnight delivery or the off-brand peanut butter.
And so I hope that this makes those of us who’ve never known the pain of hunger more thoughtful consumers, more resourceful home cooks, and more appreciative eaters. Every brunch, every grocery run, every overripe banana — it’s an absolute, undeniable privilege.