I served him lunch in the basement of a church in a fancy section of Manhattan.
Part of my volunteer job for that day was to clean up the tables and remove the leftover food that our guests didn’t take with them. I had been told by the staff that because the food had been put out and possibly touched by human hands, I needed to throw what remained in the garbage regardless of its condition.
This man overheard my instructions.
He said in a quiet and kind voice, “Excuse me miss, are you really going to throw all that bread away?” I told him I guess I had to. “Well shit, I just don’t understand that. You’re here feeding the hungry, and whatever is leftover, even if it’s perfectly good food, goes straight into the garbage.” He didn’t say it in a nasty way. He didn’t hold it against me or the church. He understood the sanitary side of the request. He just sounded sad.
Before he left the room he stopped and turned around. “Can you do something for me miss?” I smiled and nodded.
I didn’t answer right away so he kept talking. “It’s just that.. we’re not the only ones who are hungry. It’s cold out there and they struggle to find food just as much as we are. Not only the birds, but all of the animals. I know they’ll appreciate it. That’s got to be better than throwing it all away. It’s a shame that’s all.” And he walked away.
He was right. It was a shame. A shame that the instructions were given without hesitation in front of people who had nothing to eat but the meal we served and nowhere to go after they left the church. A shame that I’m about to toss a huge basket of edible and most likely untouched bread straight into a billowing black plastic bag headed straight to the landfill to rot. I got the reason behind throwing it away. I did. But I still felt like an asshole. I thought..
This story is just one of many small moments I took home with me. I just got back from an alternative spring break service trip sponsored through my university. Each day, our team volunteered at a different food pantry or soup kitchen all throughout NYC.
I’ve been home for over a week and I can’t get that man’s face or his words out of my head. “Please feed it to the birds.”
It made me more conscious of how wasteful our society can be. We throw good food in the dumpster at the end of the day if it doesn’t sell, not just there, but everywhere. We keep religiously to expiration dates, buying more than we need at the time and throwing it out because package tells us it is time to. We toss clothes and household items that could be donated and reused straight to the curb for the garbage man to take off our hands. We might not recycle.
We might buy more than we need of anything at all just because we have the money to. And sometimes we buy more than we need even when we don’t have the money, just because we feel we have to. We believe we need much more than we actually do and the “want” inside all of us takes over. Sometimes the “want” runs wild.
I’m not saying become a pack rat and hoard everything you come in contact with right down to the toothpick you picked the spinach out of your front tooth with last week. That’ll just get you featured on that show Hoarders once it all starts to accumulate.
I’m also not saying to spray your lawn with your leftover taco fajitas so the squirrels can have a fiesta by moonlight. That’s just an invitation for creatures of all kinds to form a conga line in your back yard and creep on the down low near your back door. I didn’t say build a wildlife soup kitchen through your doggie door.
Become more aware. Ask questions about yourself and about our society. It will challenge all you knew. It will make room for what you know now.
Is it something that you need or just something that you want?
That question can be posed in a thousand different ways for all different types of scenarios throughout your whole life. It’s not just about waste.
I bet you’ll find there are a shit ton more wants than needs. Life doesn’t always need to be complicated. Some things are meant to be simple. Less is more. And when there is less, you naturally stop wasting, even if it’s just stopping you from wasting your money.
Even the smallest moments in time, less than a minute of an interaction with someone or something, can teach you a lesson or challenge you to think differently than you might have before this moment happened.
For me, that moment meant so much more than a small request from a homeless man pleading for me not to be wasteful in the basement of a Manhattan church serving lunch to the hungry every Tuesday.
I will carry his words with me in my heart.
And whenever there is bread leftover in my life..
I will feed it to the birds.