COVID-19, Food, Food Security, Intermittent Fasting, Malnourishment, Pandemic, Preparation, Starvation
A fair number of people I know have gotten into this trend we collectively call intermittent fasting. It’s the idea that you reduce your caloric intake by either reducing you total number of meals per day or take a set of days to not eat at all. When combined with rest, sleep, and exercise, one can become healthier, lose weight, and roll one’s body back to the days of normal blood pressure and glucose numbers. In the somewhat Apocalyptic times in which we live, some have said that intermittent fasting may be the new normal. Especially if or when stores and supermarkets begin to run out of foodstuffs. We will see what we will see come May, June, and the summer.
In the department of limited food intake, I have years of experience. Between the fall of 1980 and the winter of 1999, there isn’t a year where I didn’t have to scramble for scraps. I unknowingly made the lack of food at 616 part of my escapism in those earlier years, especially in Peanuts Land, where I used empty styrofoam McDonald’s and Burger King containers to construct the eatery sections of my imaginary capital city. It was partly why I liked it when my father would show up every third Saturday between April 1979 and April 1981 to take me and my brother Darren out for a few hours or even the whole weekend, sober or drunk. It didn’t really matter to me. Being able to eat fast food was a godsend this time four decades ago. Arthur Treacher’s Chicken and Chips, Mickey D’s, Carvel’s soft-serve ice cream, Papaya’s hot dogs, Wakefield’s brownies and greasy-spoon diners. Once, I even ordered and ate three Big Macs in one sitting at the one-time McDonald’s on the Avenue in South Side Mount Vernon. I was ten in 1980! Ah, those were great days!
But those days came after many days of well-balanced but often meager food options that Mom provided. Chicken and dumplings, pinto beans or black-eyed peas with rice, pork neck bones, and corn bread, and cabbage, cabbage, cabbage! By the end of 1980, cereal was no longer a regular household staple, and snacks were a rarity. Heck, when Mom and my idiot stepfather Maurice separated for six months that October, he cleaned out weeks’ worth of pork chops, lamb shanks, chicken, ground beef, and steaks on his way out of our apartment.
Then, the Hebrew-Israelite years came, and with it, intermittent fasting. That is, with extreme urban poverty. With the start of middle school in September 1981 came days at a time where I didn’t eat or ate very little. Our conservative take on Judaism meant that we would all have to fast for three days prior to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover. Since Darren and I weren’t adults, we were supposed to fruit and juice fast. That would have worked if there had been fruit juice and fruit in the house regularly! Our first Rosh Hashanah was the only time in those three years where I ate oranges, apples, grapes, and bananas for all three days. But with my family’s economic decline came days where I simply went to school and did not eat at all, upcoming high-holy day or otherwise.
So many days I watched my classmates eat full lunches while my stomach growled from drinking water. Pride and watching the older students clown others for being on free and reduced lunch kept me from picking up and filling out the application. And even if I hadn’t been raised to not expect handouts and to not see free-lunch as a sign of familial failure, the Hebrew-Israelite years complicated matters for me. Most Fridays at school, the cafeteria served grilled ham-and-cheese sandwiches with French fries.
It got way worse before it got better. From October 1981 through April 1984, we went between seven and 10 days every single month with little or no food at 616. After the 20th of any given month, I knew I’d miss meals, or it would be cabbage and corn bread or Great Northern beans and rice again. Keep in mind, Mom worked at Mount Vernon Hospital for most of that time as a dietary supervisor, so she worked around food while often hungry herself. One weekend in October 1982, all we had in the kitchen was some dried up cabbage, sugar, a little bit of flour, and a one-year-old box of Duncan Hines Devil’s Food cake mix. Things were so bad the summer and fall of 1982 that Mom was bringing home scraps from her job for us to eat. I got sick of days’ old Boston Creme Pie, hospital version.
Life improved slightly when Mom went on welfare after my late sister Sarai’s birth in 1983. But the food shortages continued into 1985, when Darren and I began working with my father regularly, and then began getting our own jobs. But while the malnourishment and starvation left me scarred, they also left me prepared for future crises that for many would have been calamities. Homelessness, malnourishment, and no money while at Pitt in 1988. Difficulties with rent, bills, and food in 1990 and 1991, when I graduated from Pitt. Summers looking for work and living off fumes in 1992, 1993, and 1997, when I was in grad school and after I finished my doctorate at Carnegie Mellon. The beginning of 1999, when me and soon-to-be-wife stretched $20 over ten days, eating makeshift gravy with instant mashed potatoes while teaching nearly every day for a week at Duquesne.
Maybe that explains why I once thought about becoming a chef while growing up. Maybe that’s why I took so quickly to cooking family-sized meals when I was 14. Maybe that’s the reason I made a point of cleaning off every plate of food I fixed or someone else put in front of me until I was 31. It’s certainly the reason behind my OCD around shopping, cooking, storing, and giving food, for myself, my family, and for others, for so many of my 50 years. It very well could explain my G-I tract issues and IBS for much of my adult life.
But with this COVID-19 pandemic could come food and other shortages. The land of endless plenty could have pockets of starvation if millions get sick and stay sick for too long. I have thought for years about buying a composite bow and some arrows with which I could shoot a deer in the neck. I already know I can do it, having killed two dozen mice and rats over the years — some with a broom handle, a hammer, and my bare hands. I have beheaded and gutted fish, chickens, and turkeys. I have eaten venison and rabbit stew before. Or, I could hop on down to Home Depot and buy some seeds to grow snap peas, green beans, maybe even squash or potatoes. We do have a back yard!
Maybe this is all overblown. Maybe this isn’t the Apocalypse. We still have electricity, cable, and wi-fi, after all. Yet the Romans still had gladiatorial games at the Coliseum during two years of siege and starvation at the Visigoths’ hands before it fell in 410 CE. Thousands and perhaps a few million could go without food, even if the power plants and Comcast and Verizon never shut down.
So, intermittent fasting may well work for many. As for me, I’ve tried it, and I still do it from time to time. But you cannot fast your way out of a crisis. You can hunt and grow your way out of one, though.