Shelter report: Menu of the day


Since I was last at the shelter, a small art exhibit has appeared on the classroom storage cabinet doors. Ten children have colored in Gingerbread Man shapes and labeled the picture by describing their mood.

On another wall is a menu of feelings, with accompanying emoticon-style expressions: Frustrated Embarrassed Happy Sad Surprised Shy Excited Mad Lonely Loved Proud Worried Scared Angry Nervous Silly Worried.

Can you guess how the artists completed the statement “I am _____?”

Answers at the end of the post.*

The afternoon shift is much less active than the morning—or it’s supposed to be—as we try to bed down the preschoolers for a two-hour nap period. It’s rare that everyone is asleep at once, and yesterday, we had a new boy, named for an iconic Democratic president, who was bouncing off the walls the entire time.

He finally quieted when we allowed him to sit in the library and look at books—something not normally done, because then other kids think they should be able to get up, and then…

Anyway, since I no longer had to patrol him so his forays didn’t disturb the other nappers, I became available for another assignment—one welcome to a guy who has his own issues sitting quietly without a book.

I was given a stack of newspaper advertising supplements from KMart, Aldi, Walgreen’s, Target, Procter & Gamble, Rainbow and Cub with an instruction to cut out pictures of food.

(Direction to any future caregivers should I spend my days in a nursing home: When Mr. Quimby gets restless, give him scissors and advertising inserts and tell him to cut out pictures. If newspapers and magazines no longer exist, remove his feeding tube.)

I asked if candy and soda were considered “food,” and was told it was all right to include in this case, since the children would be using my clippings to describe their favorite meal.

Perhaps, like me, you have reached that place in life where you no longer peruse advertising inserts. You have your habits, your brand loyalties, an adequate sum of worldly possessions and sufficient income that you will not travel across town to save 49¢ on frozen peas.

But I can tell you, in the day center where I also volunteer, every bit of the daily newspaper is closely read by the guests, including the inserts selling consumer products you’re unlikely to find in any homeless camp.

Part way through my work, rising children came to the table and began to help me find pictures. As we worked, I learned:

  • Most pictures of food were actually of consumer packaging
  • Fresh produce photos looked good, meat products rarely did, and cheese, bread and pasta looked like nothing
  • Children could easily identify pizza and macaroni and cheese from the packaging
  • Every retailer had sales on soda, sweetened juices, water, salty snacks, candy and preserved meat products
  • Featured produce consisted of tomatoes, lettuce, bell peppers
  • The closest items to “ethnic” foods were Tostitos, Greek yogurt and an unidentifiable picture of collard greens
  • I found only one picture of milk and no eggs.

I look forward to seeing which images the kids select. Will they want Kraft or the generic mac & cheese, soda or juice, roast beef or hot dogs? Will anyone actually choose the bottle of fish oil I included after the whole table insisted they loved it?

At the shelter, the families can enjoy nutritious, balanced meals each day. When they find a place of their own, will it be, as one boy told me, “next to Family Dollar”—a store that to him is a cornucopia? Will their shopping bags fill with fresh produce or with cheap and ubiquitous empty calories, sugar and salt?

Is it even necessary to ask these questions, when the menu of options seems to consist only of bad answers?


*The tally from the art gallery: Four “I am Sad”; three “I am Happy”; one each “I am Worried/Angry/Mad.”

I’d caution against reading too much into these selections. The moods of preschoolers can shift through many modes in the course of a day, and some kids tend to mimic the first response given, so if the first artist had said, “I am Silly,” the entire mix might have shifted.

Related: Obesity solution: Better junk food or food justice and urban farming? (Mary Turck, 2013)