An Exquisite Hunger for Action

I went to City Hall this morning to support the LAWomen15 — women fasting to advocate for a $15 minimum wage. The organizers had told me I could fast today “in solidarity” with them. My husband would be skipping breakfast for a scheduled blood test, so I could be in solidarity with him, too. I thought I’d do it.

I skipped my usual coffee and cereal while the kids got ready for school. I absentmindedly popped a raspberry into my mouth as I made their lunches. It’s easy to forget to fast when food is abundant.

As I was about to leave for the trip downtown, something caught my eye: On the kitchen counter, half an apple glistened on wooden cutting board. It had been a small apple to begin with. I’d sliced it and put it in my son’s lunchbox, along with raspberries, a granola bar, and a slice of pizza from last night’s dinner.

I considered the apple. I thought about how I’d feel stuck on a crowded freeway, my stomach empty. I could imagine its crunchy, moist, sweetness refueling my brain and body.

I ate it.

Hunger is something so painful that if you do not have to experience it, if you have a choice, you are compelled to relieve your discomfort, to satisfy your body’s basic need.

Some of the women who are fasting — full-time employees of McDonald’s and Burger King and Walmart — routinely choose between food and rent. That is NOT okay.

Mary Carmen LAWomen15

LAWomen15 2

LAWomen15

The LAWomen15 had not eaten for 14 days. They are being heard. Mayor Garcetti came down from the tower to the street to speak to them, saying he supported their action. Some Council members did the same. Then the women, followed by clergy of all faith, solidarity fasters, and supporters like me walked into City Hall. The women addressed the Council, the people who can change their situation.

City Council

They spoke eloquently. They were received with respect. They had sacrificed deeply, putting their bodies in jeopardy, to tell these sympathetic people, who had eaten breakfast and looked forward to lunch, that they needed to act with haste.

I followed them out of Council chambers, and left City Hall.

I walked two blocks, unapologetically knowing that food was my destination. I ordered a three dollar coffee, and felt both awe and guilt that I spent that much on empty calories that disappeared from the cup in two minutes. As I prepared to eat my gourmet sandwich, an uncommon, authentic sensation rolled through me: This called for a blessing. I took a deep breath, and exhaled a prayer of immense gratitude for the food I was about to eat.

Complacency is companion to plenty. I suffer from it as much as anyone, as much as the elected officials accustomed to studies, commissions, and five-year plans. Let these valiant women’s fast create an exquisite hunger for action.

Kids, We Are “The Capitol”

When The Hunger Games: Catching Fire alights on movie screens this weekend, I’ll be lining up with my sons to see it. Rather than worry that it is too violent, I’ll use it to talk about the real life violence it symbolizes off-screen – in the Congo, in China, and in America. I will confess with not a little shame, “Guys, we are The Capitol.”

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In the world of The Hunger Games, the privileged few reside in “The Capitol,” an oasis of affluence in a dismal post-apocalyptic society. They divert themselves with an annual national competition in which teens hunt and kill each other until one Victor remains. Okay, maybe we don’t force kids to engage in blood sport for our amusement (Mike Tyson might beg to differ), but we do live large off the blood and toil of poor children and adults in third world countries, and our own.

Think I’m going too far? We only need to talk about the Congo, where minerals that helped build my laptop and the screen you may be reading this on are mined by children living a terrified and tortured existence (see, e.g., Oct. 2013 National Geographic, “The Price of Precious”).

A child works a militia-run mine, photo by Marcus Bleasdale (Nat'l Geo, Oct 2013)

A child works a militia-run mine, photo by Marcus Bleasdale (Nat’l Geo, Oct 2013)

Meanwhile “Capitol parents” like me wring our hands over whether “twelve is too young for an iPhone” and debating the appropriate minutes of “screen time” each day. I’m guilty of wearing those blinders.

Or let’s talk about China, where millions of people can’t breathe because their manufacturing standards enable us – here in The Capitol – to buy cheap products. I once challenged my sons to find anything on the shelf at CVS that wasn’t made in China, and I’d buy it. We walked out empty handed. The air quality in parts of China is so bad that a friend who just returned had to seek medical care when he came home to Los Angeles, because his lungs had been so compromised. “I felt like the Lorax,” he admitted, “because I was able to lift myself up and out of that mess.”

Some may say that developing nations like these need time and room to become first world, and that this is the price we all pay until they do. But the situation of despair and inequality is not limited to other countries.

In cities across America, we close our eyes to wage exploitation of service workers. It has been reported that in billion-dollar companies like Walmart and McDonalds, wages are so low that workers need food stamps to feed their families. All this so profits can soar and we can fill up on gadgets we want but may not need.

Facing these realities can be depressing and frustrating. But they can also be motivating. Because our job as parents is to raise kids who can appreciate the abundance in their lives, and to inspire them to change the world. It’s imperative that we tell them that the amenities we enjoy – electricity and electronics, for starters – are often at the expense of others. And it is also imperative that we empower them to do something about it.

Dr. Seuss' Lorax

And they can. We may not rule the world, but there is power is in our purse strings. We can demand that companies use products made with conflict-free minerals. If none exist yet, then they’d better exercise their influence to change that. We can exercise consumer choice, shopping at small stores where our dollars don’t support unfair labor practices. We can buy items made with sustainable, non-toxic materials. Investors can choose Socially Conscious Investments, which encourage CEOs to do the right thing even if it’s for the wrong reason. We can support efforts of vulnerable workers to unionize, as car wash workers in Santa Monica did last year, and we can patronize businesses that pay workers fair wages. We can raise our voices in favor of paying living wages, recognizing the dignity of all people as we enter a reflective, sacred time of year.

Most importantly, we can strive not to shield our kids from the truth. To be honest, in an age-appropriate way. We owe it to our kids to do the right thing, not to bury our heads like The Capitol-dwellers in order to make our privileged existence palatable. We owe it to Katniss.