Hunger is too prevalent in all our communities. Food Pantries and Food Banks help, but many times the food is processed and has minimal nutritional value. Storage space for fresh and frozen food is limited, especially in rural communities. The challenges of access are exacerbated in rural areas with no public transportation available, some people bike 10+ miles in scorching heat, rain or cold in order to get to their nearest food bank. To humanize hunger, we share the story of a young man who walked past Ozark Akerz farm on on a hot and heavily humid day in August. We invited him in for a meal.
I call him Michael. He was walking along the road on a hot and heavily humid day in August. We see a lot more cows and tractors on the road than people walking, joggers or cyclists. We might see one or two people walking the road every year.
My wife Sue first spotted Michael about half a mile away. We met him at the end of the driveway when he walked past the 100-year-old farmhouse. The house has seen many people walk by in the wilting heat, most of them before the blacktop was laid. Sue asked if he needed help or a ride somewhere. He said no, then lowered himself slowly to sit at side of the road in the shade of a longstanding pine tree. We gave him water. Sue asked if she could cook him a burger. “It’ll take a while because the beef has to thaw.” she said. “If you’ll make the burgers, I’ll eat them.” Michael responded.
Michael had been at the church up the road waiting to meet the pastor, but he didn’t show. He had left his backpack there and was walking to the nearest town 4 miles away. He was going to return to get it later. I offered to drive him back to the church to get his backpack and into town when he had eaten. He was fine with that.
When we returned with his backpack, Michael and I sat on the shade of porch and talked. I talked, mostly, Michael was a man of few words. I shared what life was like on a regenerative farm, he shared that he was born in North Carolina and had lived in Washington state. He didn’t offer where he lived now and I didn’t pry. I thought he might be homeless, but it was not my place to ask.
We sat and listened to the cicadas for a time, then Michael quietly asked why we farmed. I explained that Sue and my son were both cancer survivors and that it was important to us to grow nutritious food, not just for us but for our community. He nodded and fell into his own thoughts. A few minutes later he broke the silence again, asking if I liked football. We found something we could agree to disagree on. I was a Carolina Panthers fan and he was a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. There was no trash talk, we talked about players and coaches past and present of the Steelers. Michael had words now.
The conversation came to a hammering halt when Sue brought out a tray of food and announced, “A meal fit for a king!”. There were two big burger patties, all the fixings and potatoes. Michael didn’t waste any time. I have only witnessed one other person eat a burger with such relish. My dad had been in the ICU and step-down unit for 10 days when I brought him a burger, he inhaled it. Michael ate two burgers in the time it took my dad to eat one.
When he had finished, Michael wiped his mouth, stood up and declared “I’m ready to go into town now.” As we were walking to the truck he threw up, then he threw up again. I asked if it had been a while since he’d eaten. “Yes” he answered and then he apologized for throwing up on the grass. “I’m sorry you haven’t eaten Michael.” “It’s ok.” He replied. “No it’s not.” I responded.
We drove in relative silence into town, La Ley 101.1 Spanish radio filling the void. He didn’t ask, but I shared that I listened to it so I could learn Spanish. He had nothing to say about that. I think he was embarrassed about getting sick or maybe all his effort and attention went into trying not to throw up in the truck so there was nothing left for words.
When I dropped him off, I handed Michael a $20 bill and wished him luck. He looked me in the eye briefly, thanked me and walked towards the woods at the back of the building. I wondered if he were heading toward the river to stay cool. I wondered where he would spend the night. I wondered if he would get meals the rest of the week.
I call him Michael, that is not his name. I named him as a result of a quote, attributed to John Bradford, that Sue shared with me when I returned home: “There, but for the grace of god, go I”.
My name is Michael.
Update April 13, 2021
Hunger is an epidemic. We are all only one job loss, illness, or accident away from needing help.
Michael is just one of many examples of hunger we have encountered in our community. Since moving to Coleridge, NC in 2014, we have made it a priority to donate our organically raised eggs and beef to families in need.
In 2020, Covid-19 increased the need. Friends told us about 3 local families that lost their jobs in March 2020. We began providing 9 dozen eggs and 3 lbs of beef to them every week. By July we realized we were in for the long haul and we began raising money via merchandise sales to help pay for the non-soy, organic chicken feed, our biggest expense, so we could continue. We raised enough to help provide them healthy food through March 2021.
The need is still strong in 2021. One local food pantry has gone from providing food to 30 families once a month pre-Covid to 50 families twice a month. in 2021 we're increasing our focus on food assistance. Our goal is to replace the income we received from sales to Chef & The Farmer and The Boiler Room restaurants, before Covid-19 shut them down, with income from merchandise sales. That;s not an easy task, we will need to increase t-shirt sales from 180 to 1300 annually.
We hope Chef & The Farmer opens again soon, but we really want the many people of our community that cannot afford to dine there, let alone afford to buy healthy, organically raised food at the grocery store, to enjoy delicious Pineywoods Heritage Beef. Merchandise sales in one way to reach that goal.
Mike Hansen lives and works at Ozark Akerz Regenerative Farm.
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