He was intense, surly, a bit unwashed. My interactions with him earlier in the evening had not been overly friendly, but now the show was over and he was looking at me intently - “Can I talk to you?” It was more a command than a request.
I was beyond tired, having driven from Baltimore after our gig there through the wee hours of the morning here to Syracuse, slept for a few hours in our hotel, done two morning radio shows, and dealt with a challenging soundcheck and concert partly overseen by this ragged young man, who was assisting an equally brusque sound technician who may or may not have been his dad. But of course I agreed, and after a bit more packing up of instruments and equipment, we met on the chilly sidewalk outside of the theater as my bandmates waited in the van.
“I heard what you said, about hunger, before that song,“ he said accusingly.
He was referring to a song of mine, “Feed Your Baby,” which portrays lives wrestling with the insanity of our food system. I introduce the song with a crowd-pleasing aside, juxtaposing the broader issue 50 million “food-insecure” Americans with the more personal scenario of trying to get nutrition into my own finicky toddler, who only wants to eat those food-like products the finicky American toddler wants to eat.
“Have you ever been hungry?” the young man asked.
I was transfixed by the power, even menace, of his gaze. He had been hungry. I hadn’t been. I was raised the privileged child of two artist-activists who concerned themselves with hunger and poverty locally and abroad, I had statistics about childhood malnutrition, sustainable agriculture, and SNAP budget cuts at my disposal, served on the board of a major food justice organization, and stayed a few weeks in a hut in Zimbabwe, but no, I had never been hungry, not for more than a few hours. I had thought about hunger, read about hunger, proselytized and fundraised for hunger, but I had never been hungry. I hadn’t even ladled out soup at a soup kitchen.
I don’t remember exactly what I said next, beyond relating: 1) my status as one not personally intimate with hunger, and 2) my assurance that I cared about hunger nonetheless. To the young man, I don’t think it mattered what I said, exactly. I think he just needed to know that I was listening, that I was serious, and that my glib comments about my fussy four-year old were not the whole story. I think I told him he was a powerful person, and that he could do things with his life. I think he told me that I needed to write some more, another song, perhaps, digging deeper into the desolation of not knowing where your next meal is coming from.
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Jen Chapin is a singer-songwriter and food justice activist with a lifelong involvement with Whyhunger (co-founded by her late father, Harry Chapin in 1975). She recently performed at the TEDxManhattan Conference: “Changing the Way We Eat.” She is also a Food Tank advisory board member.
Video for Jen Chapin’s song “Feed Your Baby” from Reckoning: http://youtu.be/J3hc8OUNOs8