I remember watching a World War II film that included a concentration camp scene wherein a Nazi commander was hosting a civilian visitor to the camp. The commander and his guest were sitting outdoors, on a veranda of sorts, enjoying refreshments and a view of the nearby woods where they would not be offended by the grim realities inside the camp. As the two relaxed with food and wine, a prisoner detail was being marched back into camp, presumably after a long day of physical labor. Haggard, wasted and near death, the prisoners stole furtive glances at the two men enjoying their late-day break. In return, the commander, noticing their uninvited looks, began tossing scraps of food to his two dogs, his disdain for these captives and their condition plainly etched in his face. As if their hunger was not painful enough, this waste of food in their presence represented a horrible insult intended to hurt their souls as well as their bodies. For me, the scene portrayed an evil that has never left my memory.
I remember thinking to myself, how could the guest or even the other guards have stood by and let this happen? How could anyone have tolerated these injustices and degradations of humanity? I used to think, if I had been there, I would have attacked that commander and thrown the food over the barbed-wire fence in order for the prisoners to have had at least a moment’s satisfaction. Boys often imagine themselves doing such heroic things as this, and I find myself wondering whatever happened to such inclinations to heroism? Because today, the same degradations, inhumanities and even insults are part of our everyday lives. Yes, yours and mine.
What would you do? What if you are out for dinner on a pleasant Sunday evening, at an outdoor cafe near the lake that you particularly enjoy. It’s been one of those perfect summer days, where you are attuned to all the sounds of nature surrounding you and you are aware of how its music soothes you. Your table faces the lake; a walking path is just beyond the outdoor patio and follows the shoreline. Your meal is done, a spread of food and condiments befitting this luxurious setting. You have joked about how much you have eaten and the need for a “doggy bag” to take the rest of the food home.
You are startled by the sound of rustling shrubbery off to your side. From a wooded area a man wanders onto the walking path, glancing at you and the other diners. He appears disheveled and disoriented and to your growing discomfort he is approaching your table. You think about summoning the waiter but before you can spot him, the stranger speaks. “Excuse me. I’m sorry for intruding. But I see that you have finished eating your supper, and I wondered whether you might be willing to share your leftovers with me. I’ve been without work and a place to stay and I’m very hungry.”
To begin with, you’re a little irritated at the intrusion and the awkwardness of it. You’ve simply wanted to enjoy a beautiful evening and a fine meal, and now this stranger has appeared. And yes, you’ve finished with your meal but the idea of giving someone your leftover scraps doesn’t seem quite right. Maybe you’ve even thought about these leftovers as part of tomorrow’s lunch. In any case, the waiter and the maitre d’ are nowhere to be seen, the man and the food are before you, and all you can think of is how does this kind of thing always happen to me? What would you do?
It’s a sobering and downright shameful fact that in the U.S. we throw away nearly 40% of our food. Whether disposed of as garbage from our tables, unused in warehouses and destroyed, kept from markets due to economic reasons, or otherwise rendered unusable, our food waste could feed the world. While 25,000 human beings die each day from hunger and hunger-related disease, we discard enough food to have saved most of them. It is insanity and insult that calls to mind the actions of that camp commander who I wanted to throttle!
The solutions may not be as easy as throwing scraps to a hungry man at the table, but our outrage ought to be no less than what we feel from the movies….