Ronald Reagan, nervous in the stomach that he is perceived as stone-hearted to the poor, suddenly wants to know about hunger. Media stories about soup kitchens and cheese lines look real on television, a Reagan aide said, but you never know. A presidential Task Force on Food Assistance has been formed, sent forth by Reagan with the customary words of true leadership that he wanted to "solve the problem of hunger in America once and for all."
If learning about hunger is Reagan's goal, he could have skipped the commission gambit and taken instead a quicker, cheaper and more mind-shattering approach: a tour of the Hunger Belt in the nearby neighborhoods of central Washington.
Within walking distance of the White House are four soup kitchens, each serving several hundred of the poor in their daily search for food. Less than two miles away are several emergency food centers that dispense free groceries to families. And everywhere are the dumpsters behind restaurants and supermarkets in which rotting but still edible morsels--the snack foods of the poor--are found.
The soup kitchen I know best is a few blocks north of the White House, at 14th and Church Streets in the city's prostitution and drug corridor. I have been volunteering there one morning a week for several years. I don't do much --soap some bowls in the sink, ladle soup, wipe tables. Subconsciously I am probably there for selfish reasons that have more to do with the practice of my profession than my religion: to see close up the effects of an economic system that for many is inhumane. For these citizens, the Reagan policies are only the latest brutality.
Odd turns and surprises keep occurring at this particular kitchen. The other morning, a new group of the hungry appeared: Salvadoran refugees. The three men were working as farmers a year ago in rural El Salvador. They were forced to flee. Now they are part of the kitchen's expanding clientele. It wasn't so long ago that this haven was visited by only street alcoholics with grizzled faces. Now it is common to see well-shaven young men who, out of work for a few months but still resisting the fall to the bottom, commute between the unemployment line and the soup line. Of late, women have been appearing in larger numbers also, as have children.
The hard work of running this operation is less in cooking and serving food than in gathering it from the markets and warehouses. Food companies and farmers, with a better sense of the poor's misery than the Reagan administration, are generous in donating their surpluses. The problem is in the costs of distribution.
Last month, word came to the group that runs the kitchen that some farmers in North Carolina had an extra 40,000 pounds of sweet potatoes. They would be plowed under if no one came for them.
Money to rent a truck was raised by a coalition of church groups. When the vehicle returned from the North Carolina farms, it was parked in a poor neighborhood. Local families were invited to help themselves. Fifteen hundred people came. In less than three hours, the potatoes were gone.
Several blocks to the east of his residence, Reagan would come upon a soup kitchen at 6th and G Streets NW. It operates from 5 p.m. to 6:15 p.m. When I went by the other afternoon, a line had already formed at 4 o'clock. I recognized a few faces from the 14th Street soup kitchen. The men have soup for breakfast at one and soup for dinner at the other.
In the alley that is the entrance to the dining room, the heat was in the 90s. What hung heavy in the air was the recently announced news that the building temporarily housing the kitchen at $300-a-month rent would soon be demolished. Several blocks were being cleared for high-rise apartments and businesses. Once again, the poor were in the way of progress.
One block over is a shelter for homeless women. Food is also provided. One of the Catholic sisters who run the 42-bed facility says that volunteers are needed for more than merely serving the meals. People are needed to talk with the women. A kind word, or a warm conversation, is often the last solace anyone thinks of giving to the hungry, though it is food for the soul.
On large letters on a cloth wall-banner in the dining room, the courageous sisters proclaim the ideal they try to live by: "Be of love a little more careful than of everything."
If Ronald Reagan is too busy to visit the hungry who surround him, he should send his commission to the kitchens and shelters of his neighborhood. The hungry, who suffer "the problem" that Reagan says he is out to solve "once and for all," have time to talk. It's the shortage of listeners that is their deepest destitution.