The hungry hands that feed

From Eshla:
When I see my dinner plate, I see stories of injustice.

I love good food as much as anyone else.  And I love rustic food–hearty, soulful, made with care.  The towers of exotic ingredients, piled onto a grand white plate, served at an exorbitant price in a high end restaurant make little sense to me.  For when I see a plate, I don’t just see food, I see the stories behind it – the hands that sowed the seeds, the hands that harvested the crop, the hands that cultivated it with care.  And I think of those hands – did they get their fair share?

One of the great ironies that I’ve never understood is that of farming.  Why is it that those who grow our food have so little to eat themselves?  Why is it that those who feed others often don’t have enough to feed their families?  Why is it that those who harvest that crop don’t get to share it with their family or community?  Rather, the best of it is exported to distant locales, to people who’ve never met that farmer, who’ve never visited his paddy, who’ve never seen his aged feet dipped in the wet earth as he tends to his rice?

Our affinity for global tastes has meant that so much of what’s grown never stays in the community.  Instead, its sifted, packaged, and shipped many miles away to be consumed on foreign plates at unknown dinner tables.  So much of the story is the lost; so much of our connection to the Earth is gone; so much of our understanding of food is connected simply to taste.

If only we understood what goes into growing a bushel of wheat, a sack of potatoes, an acre of vegetables, we would prize it more, give it the love it deserves, and respect the Earth for its offering.  Yet, around the world, in countries rich and poor, I see the well-to-do waste their food.  And I always wonder if they think of the toil, the love, the hardship that went into producing it.  Perhaps, that’s the flaw of our world today.  While we are increasingly interconnected, we are also disconnected.  We don’t know the faces behind our meals.  We don’t the hands behind our produce.  We don’t know the hardship behind each dinner.

Traveling through India, when you get past the globalized metros, where food is in abundance for many, where growing bellies are common, where overeating is the cause of disease, you see another India that still works hard, tilling the Earth, for their daily meal.  During a recent venture to the inner corners of Punjab, I got to see the true beauty of Vaisakhi.  Known as a time to celebrate the harvest, we gather together, cook, eat, and share each other company’s in thanks for another harvest.  But, we do little of the physical work.

The endless fields of gold, shining in the sun, are picturesque.  But look a little closer, and you see a man, elderly, with a thin, sickly figure, chopping away at the stalks of wheat, piling it into stacks, working quickly to beat the rain.  Dark, foreboding clouds are in the distance, with the capacity to ruin that man’s months of labor.  Too much rain and the crop spoils.  It’ll spoil before it even reaches the mill.   So, he works rapidly.  His scrawny body doesn’t seem equipped for this speed and ardor.  But he keeps going.  And I wonder, what fills his plate at the end of the day?  Even if his crop survives the downpours, how much of it will he reap, how much of it will he share with his children?  And yet, here I am, being fed endlessly, paratha after paratha. I certainly don’t mind.  It’s a luxurious feast for me.  But at what cost?

Why is it that we produce enough food to feed each other yet it gets distributed so unevenly?  Why is it that we go to the market and keep looking for lower prices?  How much lower can the prices go?  How much less can we pay for the hard labor of the farmer?  These are complex, contentious questions with even more complicated answers.

Recently, I attended a luncheon held by a group of community leaders.  They were meeting to determine how to distribute their funds to local charities.  Who should get what and how much-  that was their agenda.  One charity they were looking at provided food to the homeless and the needy in the community.  They were quite keen on supporting this cause as it’s the holiday season and everyone deserves a nice meal.  But as they tallied up the numbers, divided up the total, and wrote the checks, they pushed aside their plates to a corner of the table, plates which had half-eaten rolls of bread, small pieces of meat, and forgotten potatoes and vegetables.

Even while doing good deeds, they forgot.  Just cleaning your plate is a good deed.  Just sharing that plate is a good deed.  But, strangely, they forgot.  Or perhaps they don’t realize it.  They’re accustomed to the abundance.  They know it’ll be their tomorrow.

In visiting a school designed for children of the poor in Punjab, I happened to arrive at lunch time.  So, I got a taste of their day – literally.  The children were being served dal and two thin chapatis.  The dal was watery, more liquid, less lentils.  The chapatis were like air for a starved stomach, so light.  And, ironically, both were served on a large thali.   Yet before eating their meal, the children were taught how to say a prayer of thanks.  And they did – with great dignity.  And then they dove in.  After just a few minutes, I saw one child cleaning his plate – licking it literally.  He wanted every morsel.  He couldn’t have been older than 7.  He put the thali at an angle, stationed it in his mouth, and slurped the remaining bits of dal, drinking it carefully to not let any waste. And then he licked the plate.

Just a few metres away from where he sat, the school teachers had put together a little garden, sowing seeds for a few basic vegetables.  The children were taught how to take care of it.  They had labeled the rows, written down when they watered it last, and categorized the vegetables by variety.  They’d done it with their hands.

These were the children of those have little or nothing.  But they knew where their food came from.  And they savored every bite that they received.

Why are we, those who are given such abundance, so disconnected from our bounty?  Why do we not treasure it?  Why do we not allocate enough to the hands that grow it for us?  Why do we waste so much, simply because it doesn’t suit our liking?  Why are there such harsh paradoxes in our world?

These are not easy questions.  But if more of us asked them, we would be more mindful of our meals – of the resources they consume in getting them to the table, of the people whose lives feature on each plate.

As the Buddhist teachings tell us, we ought to be more mindful in our lives.  Be more mindful of what’s presented on your plate.  Eat it with respect, not greed.  Eat it with love, not in haste.  For the hands who grew it, may not have the chance to do the same.

22 thoughts on “The hungry hands that feed

  1. Well said and well put. We really have lost base with our roots. Roots not necessarily of culture, tradition or nationality. But rather roots of humanity. Of understanding the value of food that we eat, the water that we drink and the abode that gives us shelter.

    Without these most basic, fundamental human values, who are we?

  2. We have the ability to avoid global hunger. Do we have the heart and the will? Dont waste food & water give it to others while millions of die of hunger.
    Major wastage of food & water are the hotels & restaurants if which is controlled by taxing them wastage tax @ 100 % of their bill amount.
    a)Hotels where most food is wasted & we all enjoy going there with families & friends but we are least berthed what to odder & how much to odder, if I see someone waste good food because they have over ordered. I just think it’s really disgusting, especially with so many people starving in the world. I think the phrase; “eyes bigger than their belly” would best describe these people. If the hotel industries are taxed heavily they will look that none of their clients’ waste food.
    b) Mostly all star hotels have bath tub for bathing & showers to bath, it requires about 272 liters of water to fill it instead we can bath in a bucket of water only requires about 20 liters of water to fill it even if we bath two buckets of water we are saving about 220 liters of water per day, just imagine how much water is saved per day by us.
    •Marriages & parties is other source of wasting food as most marriage & parties are in the night & you can’t give waste food to poor people at mid night as they will drink water & sleep by the time we go for searching them even animals want eat food after mid night, so what we do we throw waste food in garbage no one eats it & its waste of money & energy , wasting food is sin, government must tax here also 100 % of the amount they spent on marriages & parties so that no one wastes food.
    •It takes about 8 billion barrels of oil to grow, harvest, preserve, package and transport food & vegetable supply to the market from farm, so wasting food is equal as wasting energy?
    Study Finds Half of All Food Produced Worldwide is Wasted,a recent study by the United Nations found that while many people on Earth suffer from malnutrition and a complete lack of healthy food, much of the food that is grown and produced around the world is actually wasted. In fact, 50 percent of all food is wasted. That is a huge amount of wasted food when you consider that 500,000,000 people suffer from having a complete lack of food beyond what they can scrounge in their day-to-day lives.
    Food wasting seems to be everywhere. When you go the grocery store, a large portion of the produce, bakery and meat may never see a mouth, and instead be thrown out to be composted or simply degrade in the dump.
    How does wasting food affect the environment? Well, put simply the more we waste the more we produce. Look at it like gasoline. An internal combustion engine is only 20 percent efficient. Therefore, 80 percent of the energy is wasted. However, if an internal combustion engine was 80 percent efficient, you would buy 60 percent less gas for your car than you would with a 20 percent efficiency car. The same is true with food. If a grocery store has 100 heads of lettuce, and 25 are bought, that means that 75 heads of lettuce are wasted. If instead 25 heads of lettuce were ordered only, and the other 75 were ordered by other grocery stores, that is 75 less heads of lettuce that have to be grown. Sure most of these are composted, but it does not stop the purchase or production of the lettuce, and they are still essentially wasted.
    • Next comes our sweet homes parents nowadays don’t seem to mind that their children leave food on their plate, poor planning and a busy lifestyle will also lead to a great deal of household food waste. How many of us can admit to having made an impulse buy, then several days later having to dispose of food that has gone off in the fridge? Back in the days when the saying “waste not, want not” actually meant something, you had to plan what would be bought, cooked and exactly how to use the leftovers, We parents must take care that no one wastes food at home, we must teach our younger generation the value of food & water, not only our family but also our neighbor, our society where we live each member of society must be involved in it & must know the value of not wasting food & water.
    •I’ve seen many TV programmers & movies where someone will get up and walk away from a plate of food half eaten; just imagine what effect kids will get after watching these types of movies & TV programmers.
    Hard times are a thing of the past and we don’t really appreciate how good things are until it’s too late. It is particularly sad when there are so many in the world that don’t have enough food to eat
    Wasting Food & Water is SIN.
    Wasting Food & Water is wasting ENERGY.
    Food & Water is WEAPON during WARS.
    Wasting Food & Water effects ENVIRONMENT.
    Please do further enlighten me with your knowledge or views

  3. The issues discussed above are hard hitting but true. The producer of food in this country is the one who’s most (and always) hungry. For months at end, day in day out, farmers work hard to get a golden harvest. It’s like a woman who carries her little one for nine months in her womb, only to give her away!!! We live in a world full of gross inequalities and maximum ironies.

    Respect for food!! That’s one of the earliest lessons we all learn at home. Let it not be the first one to be forgotten.

  4. thank u Mr.Kapur … its os well written .. evry word touched my heart … will probably look at my plate differently now … will appreciate evry morsel n every grain of food … thank u … !!

  5. Dear Eshla,
    My deep regards for what you have written. Consider me as one who will not waste the food. I too felt but hey, there are people who have put in things in practice right? Your thoughts moved me especially bout farmers. Hope people who are hungry for power get to this thinking. Love nd respect.

  6. Just a blogger isn’t it…are you gonna go a bit further or When the time of reckoning will come…you’ll I am just a poet, author, director, artist hypocrite…who likes to raise universally correct issues obviously while roaming around whole world in first class…Thinking about poor farmers committing suicide…bravo indeed…

  7. “One of the great ironies that I’ve never understood is that of farming. Why is it that those who grow our food have so little to eat themselves? Why is it that those who feed others often don’t have enough to feed their families? Why is it that those who harvest that crop don’t get to share it with their family or community?”
    The society in which we live is of gradient nature. Gradient exists from poor to rich, mentally retarded to intelligent, saints to devil, workers to businessman, and so on.

    Poverty always lies in the mind, and not in the pocket. If you are rich by mind and heart, you will always find a path to success.

    EDUCATION (moral as well as formal) is the ONLY KEY to open the door for the prosperous human civilization.

    Felt glad. there are people like you who at-least are aware of the differences in the social dimensions.

    Best wishes.

  8. We can only hope everyone realizes the pain but than again it comes to the fact that Very few people really understand the process and very few appreciate the concept of colonization and the need to create that balance over in the world. How many NGOs or communities are really committed. I think one single person has more power than overall community as we unnecessary get political about it.

    Politics not driven by ” Keeping common man in mind” leads to all this. Power is dribbled down the supply chain in every country. Law is important around masses. If someone would just think of bringing up his own family the right way..things change.. things change.. change for better and better.. Teach their own children that Charities are OK to serve once in a while but every day deed is more important than showing off your check for that one charity you never really cared about.

    Was a gReat thought Shekhar and always loved the way you think.

    Your Fan

    Manav Malhotra
    North Brunswick, NJ

  9. THis is also so easy to do .. only if people can include movements like this to promote more social security like in US and allocate more power to farmer to dictate certain portion of the market. Has to be done at the Panchayat level not at the corporate level.. layers are to be worked out for it from villages around India. Simply something that everyone could be proud about.

    Anna and people doing the same thing at the Lokpal bill level but a similar movement from “Dihaat” is necessary as well to see proper supply chain and some command and control over to farmers to work with retail sector.


  10. Shekhar,

    most people who insouciantly eat their three meals a day do not ever lose a single thought on the obscenity of wasting food. In our western societies you see increasingly obese children who have never been taught any respect for the food they are eating, the toil that had gone into its production. They most probably do not even know that billions of children in the third world countries have to deal with the heartbreaking daily struggle to find a modicum of food to still their perpetual hunger.

    Last night CNN broadcast in a feel good show how they honor those who are trying to make a difference in the lives of their fellow man. The camera swooped in on the display of emotions, on the tears well to do people shed when seeing the misery of lives that are so infinitely far removed from their own realities. It does tell us that there is a small and precious amount of people who do more than just cry when seeing the unspeakable sadness of lives that are dominated by the struggle to survive another day. It also told us that considerably more people are inherently good than bad. So why is it that the respect for food is a concept only few understand and care to contemplate? Over the din of the cooking channels in which the only accepted mantra is the fancy preparation of the food any thought about the source of the food and the arduous toil involved to produce it is drowned out.

    What this all boils down to again is this blatant lack of education. Nobody in our sophisticated societies is willing to go beyond the notion that food is coming from somewhere else but the super markets. The food industry is merely concerned with the bottom line trying to concentrate profits within the upper portion of the totem pole. The ones that find themselves at the bottom of it have to accept a meager profit margin dictated by a brutal competition process leaving no choices but to acquiesce.

    We can continue to honor the gallant and noble ones within our ranks and create television spectacles whose impact will quickly fade to be followed by business as usual or we can finally build our educational curriculums around the fact that it is not a matter of course to have food on the table every day. Unless the leaders of our societies begin to realize that God has not chosen a relatively small minority of the world populace to live a life in gluttony heedless of the sufferings of an overwhelming majority of our fellow men we will some day in the not too distant future find ourselves as well jostling for those crumbs we now so carelessly dump in garbage cans.

    If we all want to take our next meal without a pang of bad conscience we must do more than get teary-eyed while watching well choreographed feel-good shows on CNN.

  11. our lives have become so mechanical that we never realize the oddities.. in simple words we need to become humane and come out of the slumber.. may god enlighten us and we become more rational in every sense of it..

  12. Thanks indeed for the soul searching article ! I am a farmer. I hope all will understand farmers plight better now. Days are not far off when we will be compelled to save food/food grains !

  13. i never ever have in my 12 years of buying vegetables, ever bargained from the sabjiwalas. coz i know if am struggling to make my ends meet, how much they too wud be!

  14. Mr. Kapur,

    You have very eloquently put forth your thoughts. I do hope you will make a movie that brings these observations to the screen, so that even the thoughtless are forced to think about these matters.

    Best wishes.

  15. Sir,

    Reality well captured, hand that grows food for us are exploited as they cant come to market & sell(some try do in my town, but again until evening if they cant sell they cant take back to their village also). our government or good private distribution network can help.


  16. All problems of inequity in this world are the result , the consequemce of the social , economic, political, moral system we inherit.

    This is true for every generation of people , in every culture , land and clime.

    So what is the solution ?

    When I was a Teen in the mid 90s, I used to forego my meals in solidarity with many starving souls. I used to eat once evry 2 days , that too very little, just enough not to cause my mum any pain.

    I gave up food in my university days for days on end , for many reasons other than solidarity for the starving – we had no time for food due to the excess excitement caused by our scientific temper , the many assignments and general euphoria of being free of parental oversight.

    Comming back – the solutions to all of india’s problems lie in our own Cultural Ethos , Civilization.

    The Vedas and the Vedic life revolved around abundance , due to following ‘Dharma’ – the specific methods of sustainable farming and enlightended living known as ‘ Rishi – Krishi ‘ Vidhan.

    I wrote about this many times. There is no awareness of what ‘ Rishi-Krishi’ means , among Indians , let alone anything ‘Vedic’ , than what the conceited and biased 19th century European ‘ Indologists’ wrote and made part of the Indian Education system.

    Nature is full of Abundance – Just taking some physical facts , this planet has 70% water , vegetation that grows exponentially if left alone , food crops that are by nature abundant in giving. One seed gives rise to a plant with many factors of number of seeds over its lifetime .

    So what is the cause of Starvation and Deprivation ? Not Nature , it is in the lack of social responsibility at the basic level .

    The British shot dead in point blank range , many thousand starving families right in front of Fort ‘Saint George’ in Chennai , when they came to beg for food , in a Famine caused by the British in which a Million died.

    Power Transferred india ( not Independent yet) , has managed to stop the horrible Famines caused by the Europeans. But as long as European methods dominate India – Starvation and Deprivation will continue.

    India has to return to itself and look within its Vedic Culture for solutions.

  17. Apart from the awareness, we need to have lagislation on food waste in India. We must have() for marriages and gettogeather. Food waste must be weighed after celebration and will be taxed.

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