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  • Mj Pettengill

The Food Bank: Inhabiting Hunger


Young worker in Merchants Mill. Location: Fall River, Massachusetts / Lewis W. Hine.

Last year, I decided that it was time for me to be of service to those in need in the present day.


I have devoted many years researching and uncovering our shared stories that have been cast into the shadows, intended to be forgotten. I am still in it, facing the dense and rigid world of collective fear and shame—that which has no precise focal point—no beginning and hopefully an end. Once you pass through the doors of history, it is often difficult to turn back. 

Of course, there are times when I say, “not now.” Perhaps that time never comes, or maybe I will return. Time will tell. Relying on my intuition, I know when to carry on and when to flee.

As many of us know, I dug my heels in with the 298. I am still in it. As I continue along this path, I am never without material to examine. It depends on what I find and how it fits into the world that I have recreated. 

I have discovered that trains have become a metaphor. They do bring me—the characters—from one scene to the next. I did not realize how vital this was until we started riding them. Some hop them, others collect coal that falls along the tracks, while some buy tickets as well-behaved passengers, or at least they do their best.

From articles, books, diaries, and in my mind’s eye, I have unveiled harrowing scenes, imagining food that is not fit for pigs, and placed myself at the table. There are those, in previous timelines, who have shown much gratitude. Young Samuel is a good example of this. Others are horrified by the scent and sight of such pathetic scraps, yet it became their fate.

So, the question became, “What do I do now, here, in real-time?”

After inhabiting the hunger of my characters, my first thought was to find a soup kitchen. This idea was born unconsciously throughout the development of Miss Noyes and Polly at the County Farm. Their attitude and actions towards the inmates were difficult to express but came from authentic sources. Remember, this started out as a thesis, then a work of non-fiction, ending up as a narrative. My research serves as an abundantly-rich toolbox for writing the series.

After traveling with Annie Quinn in 1847 from Cork, Ireland to Canada, then in the wretched tenements of Fall River with Sarah in the 1870s, hunger nestled deeper into my own bones. 

This manifested a desire to literally ladle nutritious soup into bowls, hand out warm, fresh bread, and smile from the deepest part of me. I wanted to show the face of hunger that there was love, kindness, and compassion in this world because there is. We simply need to remember, act accordingly, and give freely from the heart. 

The answer for me was to volunteer at the local food pantry. I began in January, before the pandemic and ensuing shut-downs began. I was part of the process, figuring out how to reach those in need while following strict safety rules. We did it. We have an excellent system.

It is imperative to make sure that people who need assistance know about this service. I have many years of experience in public relations, so I took on that role. Then, I was asked to serve on the board of directors. I am pleased to be a part of such an essential public service.

When the shut-down began, everyone was scrambling. We didn’t have the playbook. We still don’t, but it has become a part of the world that we inhabit now. Humans are adaptable.

A natural response from the public has been to make donations—monetary and other helpful items. Generosity and compassion continue to play a part in these actions. When I speak with the clients, it is a priority to be kind and supportive. In addition to providing food, I also ask, “How are you doing?” It is more than a casual question that you might ask when greeting a friend. I mean it. Times are tough.

No one has answered with any kind of demand or concern. It is more about reassurance, to talk to another person about what it might be like for them. Many folks are somewhat isolated. I feel a duty as a fellow citizen to be there if a different level of reaching out is identified. We are not social workers, but we are humans. From one person to another, it’s essential to check out how we are all faring at any given time, but it is especially true now.

The food pantry where I volunteer is in Tamworth, New Hampshire, and it serves residents from that town and my hometown of Sandwich I tell people about this. I post it in the newspapers, online exchanges, and social media platforms.

We are in this together. Let us take the time to honor one another and share our resources. If you or someone you know needs assistance, please check into the available resources in your area. Know your village and where to turn during times of need. "When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, Look for the helpers." —Fred Rogers.

May we all shine on. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Image: Young worker in Merchants Mill. Location: Fall River, Massachusetts / Lewis W. Hine.

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