We are Very Hungry

I was doing at task at Manna that I usually do not.  I had been avoiding it for a while.  Because none of the other “regulars” had shown up, I was the only volunteer left to do it.  Basically, the task involved greeting the customers when they came in to pick up their food, checking their identification, ticking their names off a list, and getting signatures.  It sounds simple, but it was the small variations in the type of folks who come to pick up food that I was not used to.  People can pick up food for others if they have their IDs, case workers can pick up food for their clients with their own IDs, organizations can pick up food for a larger number of clients, etc..  I was simply being lazy and trying to avoid having to remember what needed to be done in each case.

In any case, it was time for me to bite the bullet and learn the process a little better since there was nobody else there to step in. Things went nicely, and it was actually nice to talk to some of the clients, beyond the conversations that one might have with them when actually delivering food to their vehicles.

I was taking care of stuff when I heard voices emanating from the window where clients go to talk to the Manna staff when needed.  In the background I could hear somebody talking about not having food, and about her child not having gone to school that day because she was being bullied, and about travails related a job situation.  The staff member (a person who must have a good heart, and who will remain anonymous for this blog) was asking questions.  Usually, the people who receive food on a particular day are on a printed list that is prepared from information collected ahead of time.   But an exception was made based on information provided.  The staff member went through the required process as an urgent matter.

The lady who had been talking to the staff member was now a client and was being allowed to pick up food the same day.  She walked up to me with her daughter and presented me with a tiny piece of paper.  On it was the information that I would normally have found on the printed sheets for the clients.  I improvised and wrote the name at the bottom of the printed list, checked ID, and got the required signature.  While this was happening, the lady mentioned that they had no food at home and that they were very hungry.  I was struck by a sense of urgency by the statement even though the lady was speaking in a calm manner.

We were giving out one piece of pastry to the customers that day, but I said that they could take two if they wanted.  The daughter addressed me politely – “Sir, can I take this one”.  I said “sure’, but then noticed that mom had already taken two pastries.  I pointed this out and the mother and daughter decided on which pastry that was already in their hands they were going to put back.  It was an “Oliver Twist” moment.  Meanwhile, I began to feel like a jerk.  Why should I be limiting food to hungry people?  Anyway, the clients were being allowed unlimited amounts of bread that day (because we had a lot of bread, and bread goes bad quickly) and I made sure to emphasize that fact while they were picking through the bread available on the rack.  The mother and daughter left with their food (which also included a closed box of dry food, some meat, and an open box of perishables, including fruits, vegetables and prepared foods). I was left thinking about how they would feel once they got some food in their stomachs.

While volunteering, there are occasional incidents that challenge me mentally and take me outside my comfort zone.  Some of them are good for me, and that is perhaps one of the points of the exercise.

The Passage of Time – In the year 2016

It was the probably the year 1980 or 1981.  We were graduate students returning from an outdoor trip.  It was some time in the evening, and we were tired from the daytime activities.  We decided to stop at the local steak place that we had never been to before for dinner.  We were seated at a table in the restaurant and opened up the menu to look for food to order.  A quick look and we realized that we had gotten into a restaurant beyond any of our budgets.   We made a quick and silent getaway before the waiter could get to our table.

Fast-forward to dinner for my birthday this year at a relatively new local restaurant that we have wanted to go to for some time.  After looking at the menu I was reminded of the incident from my younger days.  I could not help thinking about how life has changed since then.  I would not have been able to eat in this restaurant under the circumstances of my youth.  Even if I could have, I would have been more careful than I was being today in selecting the items from the menu.  It is not just a matter of things being affordable after all the working years, it is also the fact that one feels more secure in one’s own situation in life.  Is it a feeling of entitlement, of thinking that you can have anything you want because you have earned it, or of even trying to flaunt your status in life?  Is one spending money just because it is there?  I hope not.  At the end of the day, food is meant to simply to quench the pangs of hunger and keep you nourished, and the fact that we have found ways to really enjoy the experience of consumption, and even expand it, is really a bonus, mostly because we have built up a civilization that thrives on this concept.

I try to tell myself that even while enjoying my good fortune I should not forget those that are less fortunate.  We have set ourselves a goal of somehow matching our dinners at restaurants with contributions to organizations that provide food for the needy.  And hopefully we can do more.

CRISPR

How many of you have heard of CRISPR?   I gather from the Wikipedia article that it somehow holds the key to a gene editing technology that is relatively simple to implement compared to  older methods in this field.  Pioneers in this area of science include Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier.   This is mind-blowing stuff with many practical applications.   You can develop approaches to tackling diseases by modifying the DNA itself.  (Think of approaches to attacking cancer in the most efficient manner without having any of the current side-effects of such treatment.) You can easily modify the DNA of pests such as mosquitoes that spread diseases as a form of pest control.  You can easily modify the DNA of plants so that they are more useful to humans. You can easily modify the properties of microorganisms so that they are less dangerous to humans, and perhaps even do useful things for them.  The possibilities are endless, and therein lies the problem.

It is a fact that we human beings have played a very significant part in determining the nature of the lifeforms that exist on this planet today.  As a process of evolution, human beings have changed over the centuries, and we have also managed to impact a lot of the things around us that we find in “nature”.  If you think that all the meats and the fruits and vegetables that we buy in the grocery store are all “natural”, think again.  They have all taken the form they are today only because we as humans have managed to affect changes to the lifeforms that are the basis of our foods in a certain way to our benefit.  We have dominated the environment of our planet in this context.  In addition to the evolutionary changes that we have caused (sped up through the process of efficient “farming”), we have also been affecting faster and more deliberate genetic changes through science in the last century or so.  While we may not have looked at what we were doing with that perspective, we have always been playing God.  And while all of this is happening, there is this moment every once in a while when we momentarily pause to consider the ethical impact of what we are doing.

The pace is now about to pick up significantly!  With simpler technology for gene editing, we have the capability to move forward much faster.  Not only that, we have the ability to open up newer frontiers in science, and with that raise a bunch of new ethical questions.

Medicine has always been about trying to take care of the problems of human beings at all stages of life and very often regardless of the costs involved.  We have been successful in extending human life significantly (for what reason, one is not always sure).  We are all about trying to make sure that people are healthy and that we overcome any health issue with all the resources available.  With the new gene repair technology, having access to all of this can become only a matter of cost.  There are of course always ethical questions involved when cost enters the picture.

But the more intriguing ethical dilemma to me will be about the process of creating a life.  It seems that not only will will be able to fix problems after birth, but we may even be able to address them before we are born.  Wow!  For example, if there is a risk of Down’s syndrome in a baby, perhaps we can now do something about it very easily before the baby is born!  Now, we are really playing God.

I suspect that some people are going to be appalled by the ethical questions that are raised, as if we are crossing some barrier that must not be breached.  But truth we told, we have always been playing God, and we have always been willing to accept any science and technology that we feel is to our benefit.  Only now the pace of “progress” increases, and this progress continues relentlessly.  It is all a continuum and the barriers that are only in our minds will be hurdled over before too long.   Where we are headed, nobody really knows.  This process started a long time ago.

The really crazy thing about all of this is even as science and technology leads us fearlessly across new frontiers, we are still unable to address some other basic requirements for humanity to thrive.  We still have inequality in the world. We still have poverty and hunger.  Crazy!

The Tent Angel

“We just gotta outlast the storm by one day,and I just want to be there to help someone through their storm”.
Arnold Harvey, Garbageman, Montgomery County, MD.

Here is somebody who is actually actively doing good work with the less fortunate in our part of the world.  Read the story of the tent angel.

I did a little more research on Arnold and found out that I had just touched the tip of the iceberg regarding the background of this remarkable person.  He is an amazing chap who with his wife Theresa has already been doing other notable charitable works in our part of the world for many years. He is called “The trash truck driver” by the homeless, and he has done a lot to help them in their immediate needs.  He manages to run a charitable organization while working as a garbageman, and he is making a difference the best way that he can.

Read the article that appeared about him in the Huffington Post here.  His life story is also quite interesting.

Here are a couple of videos.

https://youtu.be/EXUYujwCRGI

https://www.facebook.com/godsconnectiontransition/videos/vb.584956878230174/858936434165549/?type=2&theater

What would you rather be doing at 5:00am on a Saturday morning?

What Percentage of Food Produced in the United States Never Gets Eaten?

It feels rather strange to be writing about the topic of wasted food once again in such short order, especially since my attention span is short and usually tends to wander from random topic to topic.  But it turns out that events are happening in this domain that seem to line up with my attention being drawn to the subject.

A few weeks ago, after a lot of thought, I wrote a piece about the wastage of food, specifically bread, that I see at the food bank I volunteer at.  I called the piece The Economics of Wasted Bread.  Having not followed the subject too closely in the past, I felt that I might be a lonely voice in the wilderness speaking on the topic of food waste.  It turns out that I was wrong.

More recently I posted a blog where I provided a link to an article addressing food wastage. I had found the link in an e-mail from an organization dealing with social issues.  It turns out that there are other more capable people thinking about this subject.  If you track down the links in the article I pointed to, you will see that some of the numbers quoted in there come from a report by an organization called the NRDC. If you really want to dive into the weeds on this topic, you can read their complete report here.  The folks at NRDC tackle a variety of subjects of the “tree-hugging” variety, and having encountered them in a different life, I can say that the report ought to be taken with a grain of salt.  But  having said that, and also based on my own experiences, I have little doubt that the general tone of the report is correct and appropriate.

Whether you believe the numbers or not, the topic is in itself noteworthy, and the best person to present this topic in an entertaining manner is John Oliver.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8xwLWb0lLY

If John Oliver is right, the concept I had of the “Expiry date” of products from the legal perspective was incorrect.  But I think some my thoughts on the subject were on the right track.

So, at the end of this blog, you should know NRDC’s answer to the question as to what percentage of food produced in the United States never gets eaten.  I find the numbers shocking.

PS.  A thank you to my daughter for providing the link to the video.

An Article about Limiting the Wastage of Food

Last week I wrote about how large quantities of bread sometimes go to waste at the food bank that I volunteer at, primarily because there is sometimes a massive oversupply of the product.  This seems to happen seemingly without an adverse impact on the organization that is responsible for this oversupply of product, and in spite of the wastage it causes.  Supply and demand seem to be completely independent factors in this kind of a situation in this economic model.

By pure coincidence, I recently got an e-mail from an online organization that does campaigns for social causes that addressed wastage of food all over the world.  This was one of the articles that was linked in the e-mail.  I am glad that I am not alone in thinking that there is a problem.

http://time.com/money/3913386/food-waste-feed-hungry/

One of the things that you notice when you are sorting out products in the food bank is the presence of the expiry dates on the packaging.   If I am not wrong, every packaged product for human consumption in the US has an expiry date.  The issue is that the passage of the expiry date does not necessarily mean that the product has gone bad.  Also, in spite of the fact that different types of product are subject to different manners of expiry, this “expiry date” concept seems to be applied and used in a uniform mindless manner in commerce.  Stores remove products on or before their expiry dates from the shelves even if they are good.  I expect that there are legal reasons for doing this, but sometimes removal of product before the expiry date might be done of the reason of managing appearances.  I also suspect that expiry dates are generated in a conservative manner, i.e., the dates that are used are themselves well ahead of the dates when the product is expected to go bad.  You try to be more flexible in terms of managing this aspect of handling products in a place like a food bank (as opposed to a store), but at the end of the day, there definitely are legal constraints to be followed everywhere.

In order to exist as a society we have to set up an bunch of rules that people agree to follow (or are forced to follow) for the betterment of the larger population.  Unfortunately, the use of rules has to involve the setting up of absolutes, and thresholds for certain types of behaviors and expectations, when in fact there is often a continuum, and some ambiguity, in what constitutes reasonable logical behavior and expectation.  I call this phenomenon digital behavior in an analog world.  I recently wrote something on this topic. I will perhaps add an entry to my blog on this subject.