Kat Gruschow, Policy Fellow
It is around this time of year that I begin feeling deeply homesick. But with my family spread across the country, it is not for a place. My homesickness is really an aching for family–and food. It is the feeling of sharing a mid-afternoon cup of coffee and a Russian tea cake with my dad that I am really missing.
Our afternoon ritual is a chance to reconnect not only with each other but with all of our passed family members who, I like to believe, basked in the same daily practice during the holiday season. When my dad and I partake in our tradition, I feel closer to my family and our broader community.
Holidays and the food that defines them are a core part of cultural identity–especially sharing meals with family and friends. Similarly, central to many holidays is care for the community. In dominant U.S. culture, the Salvation Army bell ringers, Thanksgiving food drives, and the plot of A Christmas Carol all center on caring for fellow community members. Community-centered giving is evident across cultures, countries, and celebrations, such as the salience of zakat during Ramadan or even the shame of showing up empty-handed during Chinese New Year.
My aching for a shared Russian tea cake and coffee represents my desire to feel what some may call “the holiday spirit,” but to me is the sensation of tapping into our drive to connect with and care for our community. My relationship with this sense of community–both its link to food and compartmentalization to the holidays–makes me reflect on the seeming disconnect between the salience of community care around food from November to January and during the rest of the year.
In Colorado, 33% of residents lack consistent access to nutritious foods. Food insecurity is one of several overlapping oppressions, including unaffordable housing, lack of access to public transit, underfunded schools, and financial instability, which impact individuals’ mental and physical health and lead to health inequity.
And, despite the tireless efforts of advocates and engaged individuals to provide food and address the underlying conditions exacerbating food insecurity, as a broader community, it often feels that our care comes in spurts–such as during the holiday season.
However, alleviation of hunger cannot be accomplished through sporadic acts of kindness or holiday donations. Food insecurity, like other social determinants of health, is systemic, and its disproportionate prevalence in communities of color is rooted in historical and ongoing racist policies. Addressing the issue requires confronting these realities and pushing for better policy all year round—and for many years to come.
It requires tapping into our collective spirit and drive for community care outside the bounds of Halloween to Christmas. It requires expanding the holiday ritual of feeding our neighbors into a habit of providing food to help in the short term while continually supporting policies and programs that tackle the pervasive exclusion from well-paying jobs and underfunded social programs–even if they won’t directly benefit us as individuals.
We know that policies targeting the systemic causes of social problems are highly effective. Nationally, the 2021 American Rescue Plan’s Child Tax Credit (CTC) lifted 2.1 million children out of poverty and concurrently alleviated food insecurity. Its repeal reversed that progress, exacerbating racially inequitable poverty and hunger rates. In Colorado, community advocates pushed to fund a state-level child tax credit, one local example of a policy targeting systematic care for our community.
And, just this month, Colorado voters passed another such systems-level policy. Proposition FF, Healthy School Meals for All, ensures that all public school students in the state have access to nutritious breakfasts and lunches regardless of family income–a huge step towards alleviating food insecurity at a critical age. With a nearly 10-point margin, the program will begin feeding children during the 2023-24 school year. To pass, and with such wide margins, Coloradans who may not currently or have never suffered from food insecurity voted for the program.
That choice, and systems-level policy like Proposition FF, is what we need to make a habit of as community members. I am not discounting the ritualized giving–of food, money, or time–to our community during the holidays.
However, as I relish in my afternoon coffee and cookie ritual, feeling closer to my family and community in the process, and when I hear the Salvation Army bells, I will be thinking about how to expand my feeling of connectedness to the needs of others to my everyday life, for the whole year, and for many to come.