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Setting an Empty Plate at the Thanksgiving Table

It is often said that Americans are overfed and undernourished when it comes to food. Supermarket shelves are lined with highly processed “food” products that contain little nutritional value when compared to the number of calories provided. While these products excel at meeting our energy requirements as cheaply as possible, one of the many hidden costs is that they leave us lacking required nutrients. In America it is difficult to starve, but easy to be malnourished.

And yet, there are still people who are hungry in this country. The USDA census on hunger estimates that in 2010, 48.8 million Americans suffered from food insecurity, meaning that nearly 50 million people in this country were not only malnourished but also hungry. That number included adults and children, and in fact households with children were more likely to be dealing with issues of food insecurity.

This time of year, as I plan my Thanksgiving feast, I struggle to reconcile that while there will be a literal feast on my table, others are struggling to have any food at all.

Thanksgiving is a time when we gather with friends and family and celebrate all of the things we are thankful for. We give thanks for the blessings in our lives — be they people, jobs, or homes. Thanksgiving, though, is also about food. Lots of food. Depending on your taste, there’s turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, Brussels sprouts, carrots, pumpkin pie, pecan pie — the list goes on and on. Based on calculations I did using the estimation that a typical Thanksgiving meal contains 3,000 calories, the food on an average Thanksgiving table for a gathering of eight people could easily feed three times that many, perhaps more.

It’s unsettling. We prepare these feasts as a celebration of the bountiful blessings in our lives. We go a little crazy with the food because the abundance of food represents the abundance of blessings that we receive and the abundance of joy in celebrating a holiday with others. And yet at what point does the abundance cross over into excess?

JConnect, a meetup group at Denver’s Hebrew Educational Alliance, recently hosted a Global Hunger Shabbat as part of the American Jewish World Service Reverse Hunger Campaign. One of the activities of the evening took a closer look at the root causes of hunger, and participants studied photographs of families from around the world sitting next to their food for the week. A family of six of in Chad sits in front of 3 medium bags of grains, a large jug of water, and 10 small bags of fruits, nuts, and other foods. A family of thirteen in Bhutan sits in front of one large bag of grain and several baskets and bowls of eggplants, greens, chilies, assorted vegetables and fruit. A family of four in North Carolina holds two large pizzas and sits in front of a table and counter spilling over with fast food, boxed and canned food, assorted beverages, meats, and more. Their weekly food intake looks like the contents of a small convenience store, and when compared to the other family’s rations, the disparity is alarming.

These photographs are in my thoughts as I make my own Thanksgiving grocery list. Some of the actions AJWS proposes as ways to counter global hunger include giving tzedakah or volunteering to help organizations that fight global hunger. Teaching others and learning more about hunger and its causes are also important. Another way that AJWS encourages taking action is by spending ethically. To paraphrase Michael Pollan: how we spend on our money is how we vote for what exists in this world. Spending money in ways that reflect our values is ethical consumption. This includes choices about not only what we buy, but also how much.

This year, for Thanksgiving I want to celebrate the blessings in my life by not indulging in excess. The Global Hunger Shabbat materials included a “Solidarity Plate” — a single, empty plate that we can set at one place at our table in solidarity with all those who face hunger. AJWS suggests using this plate at a Shabbat meal, or at every Shabbat meal. I plan to use mine at Thanksgiving.

An empty plate at the table is a physical reminder to remain conscious of the injustices around the world. It is also more than just a reminder; it can be an agent for change. While I plan my menu, I find myself thinking about how disingenuous it would be to have one empty plate in solidarity with the hungry, while the rest of the table spills over with food. Do I really need two different kinds of mashed potatoes? Does there need to be homemade cranberry sauce and canned cranberry sauce to accommodate differing tastes? How much is enough?

It’s a big question and the answer is different for everyone. I feel better for thinking about it though. Trying to be an ethical consumer and show a little restraint as I plan for Thanksgiving won’t end hunger. Nor will setting an empty plate at our table in solidarity. They will however start a conversation, and perhaps help raise awareness for a serious issue. And for me, they will help instill a consciousness of true gratitude. The empty plate and slightly downsized feast will remind me to be grateful for the abundance of blessings in my life, not just the abundance of food on the table.

Juliet Glaser works for Hazon as the Director of Community Education in Colorado. She is a holistic nutritionist and earned her MNT from the Nutrition Therapy Institute in Denver, CO. An avid gardener, canner, and cook, Juliet loves playing with her two kids, two dogs, and husband in the Rocky Mountains. She dreams of being a goat farmer one day.

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