Waste not, want not

I have lived in the US for more than 15 years now. Yet, every time I walk into a public school lunch cafeteria in the US, I experience culture shock all over again! This is because I have never witnessed food waste on such a large scale in my life.  Every time I witness this, it makes my heart ache, it upsets me so much that it ruins my entire day, and it stays with me for days afterward. This happened yet again today.

I was working with a kindergartener who received a special lunch because he is lactose intolerant. It was a plate with five small slices of pita bread, a cup of hummus, 5 cherry tomatoes, 3 pieces of broccoli, a bunch of carrot sticks, half an orange, and a carton of lactose-free milk. The boy picked up one piece of broccoli and nibbled it for a while. Ten minutes or so later, he got up and asked to be dismissed because he was “done” with his lunch. He then walked up to the waste station (yes, I call it the waste station – it has a huge garbage bin for general garbage and three separate containers for organic waste, liquids, and recyclable products) and one of the staff members took his lunch from him. Here comes the culture shock – the lady then proceeded to dump the unopened carton of milk and the entire contents of his untouched plate, including the unopened tub of hummus into the garbage! But, she sorted the garbage accordingly into the organic waste and recyclables. The unopened carton of milk went into the general garbage because … it was unopened (so she couldn’t tip the milk into the 10-gallon container that is set up there for the leftover milk waste!

I know that children waste food. They are picky eaters and I am sure that most moderately well-off children from all over the world waste food. My kids waste food too (and get severely punished). But, what shocks me about the food waste in schools is that adults waste food without a second thought. Food waste at these schools is an adult-endorsed, school-sanctioned everyday activity! No one bats an eye! Teachers and grown-ups in educational institutions (where they should be educating the kids on the value of food and the morality and ethics of wasting it) don’t even think that anything wrong is going on here. I will never get used to this.

I work as a substitute teacher in a populous public school district in Washington state. My work takes me to a different school every day and over the course of this year, I have worked at about 90% of the schools here. I work with all grade levels from elementary schools to high schools. I have noticed that the elementary schools waste way more food than middle and high schools. By the time the kids are in middle school, they have more control over what they choose for their lunch. They are more likely to choose the junk they actually want to eat and avoid getting stuff they don’t. Elementary school students don’t have much of a choice and get the standard school lunch that has been meticulously balanced to include proper servings of protein, vegetables, fruit, and dairy. This is an effort by the community to instill good eating habits in children at a young age. But, it totally defeats the purpose because all they do is throw it away. They just grow up and then continue eating the unhealthy stuff.

The flexibility of my job allows me to choose my assignments. Early this school year, I substituted for a staff member who worked as a cafeteria monitor and the experience left me so traumatized that I stayed away from elementary school assignments for a while! Most schools here have a small seating area and so, the lunch-times are scheduled based on grade level. This school, like a lot of the other elementary schools, has a waste station with a 10-gallon bucket for milk and other liquid waste. This container fills up and is emptied after each grade finishes eating lunch! That’s roughly 60 gallons of milk (mostly) that is wasted every day in each of the 21 elementary schools in this district alone! I am willing to wager that more than half of the milk that was served that day was wasted. Working in the cafeteria that day, all I could think about were the thousands of cows that are boxed into tiny spaces and made to lactate all their lives so that these people can throw out the food that rightfully belongs to the calves.

I come from a country that has many starving people. I know Indians who struggle to feed their family 3 meals a day. In my culture, asking if you have eaten is a common way of greeting people.  One day, I ran into the 12-year-old daughter of one of my father’s employees. She saw me, greeted me, and asked me if I have eaten. I said yes and returned the greeting and enquired if she had eaten. Because she was a child, she didn’t tactfully lie, she told me the truth. She hadn’t eaten that day. I about died when I realized she hadn’t eaten because they had no food at home and no money to buy food. I got her something to eat and bought whatever I could send home with her.

I was blessed to be born in a privileged family, but I have never taken food for granted. My mother used to tell me about her grandparents who struggled for food and brought us up with a deep appreciation for our blessings. At the age of 21, I found myself in Australia was working part-time on campus when I was in graduate school. The funding for my job ended and I ran out of savings. I knew my family in India was also going through some financial difficulties at that time and I didn’t want to burden my parents with this information. For about 4 months, I had very little money for food and would end up eating 1 banana and a cup of chamomile tea for dinner. This is an experience I have never revealed to anyone except to my husband. My parents would be beside themselves if they ever found out about it. With this background and experience, I find it so hard to just stand by and watch them throw food away like dirt. There have been times when I have brought it up as tactfully as I could to the teachers around me. The teachers always tell me that it’s a safety issue! That’s when I want to roll my eyes and give them my opinion on the issue as a food microbiologist! (I have a Master’s degree in Food Science and Technology, and my area of expertise is food safety.)

The US probably has the safest food system in the world. Yet, Americans and unbelievably paranoid about the safety of their food. There are people dying of hunger around the world and these people have the luxury to throw out perfectly good food because it “may” be dangerous. The irony is that it’s not just other parts of the world! According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, “one in eight Americans struggles to put enough food on the table” even as “40 percent of the food in the United States is never eaten”. Initially, I worried that we are currently raising a generation of Americans who have no respect for food. But as I watch the teachers and staff do nothing, I realize that these kids are not the first generation of Americans who take their food for granted.

As a Hindu, I find food waste downright sinful. A few years ago, I sat my daughter down and showed her youtube videos of starving children to make her understand why I get so upset when she wastes food. If you are reading this, please take a moment to ponder this problem. Next time, you see a child wasting food, at least comment on it so they can think about what they are actually doing. When reminded of starving people in the world, most American kids reply condescendingly that “we can mail this food to them”. Don’t let your kids get away with that retort. Make an effort to install empathy in your children for the underprivileged. Tell them to think about how much effort and resources went into putting that vegetable/fruit/glass of milk on your table. Remind them of the toil of all the farm workers and the environmental toll it’s taking on our planet to both produce and waste that food. Take a moment to count your blessings and make a commitment to do whatever you can to prevent such waste.

Thank you,

-AB

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My deepest sorrow

I am writing this blog post as part of the Chennai Bloggers Club’s March contest titled “I suffered but overcame”.

As a middle-aged person, I had my pick of struggles from my life to choose for this post. Financial crisis, health problems, relationship problems, career stumbles, educational challenges, emotional struggles, crisis of faith – I could probably come up with a post on each of these topics. I took some time to think about what I wanted to pick to write about for this. Almost immediately something stood out. The one experience that went deeper than rock bottom. As soon as it came to my mind, I dismissed it. It was too personal and after my last post, I was not ready to make myself feel vulnerable on social media just yet. Besides, how could I reduce that experience to just a post for a contest? But the thought wouldn’t leave my mind and as I thought more about it, I came up with some convincing reasons to write about it. Firstly, the spirit of this contest: Its not about winning a contest, it is about getting to know one another in our bloggers club, to appreciate each person’s struggles, and hopefully write something that might inspire or as in my case- heal. Secondly, I process my emotions by writing and I know writing this will be incredibly cathartic. Finally, I considered the cost vs benefits of writing it and decided that if it brought comfort to even one single person out there it was worth it. So, here I go.

I have heard that little girls dream about the day they get married and plan it down to the last detail. I never did that. But I always dreamed about the day I would be a mother. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to have three children. So, April 22, 2004 was one of the happiest days of my life. I found out that I was pregnant for the first time. I had taken three pregnancy tests (all positive) while I impatiently waited for the doctor’s office to confirm the news. I wanted to call India and tell my parents that they were going to be grandparents before they went to bed. The doctor called me on at lunch and I left my sandwich uneaten (and my dog stole it off the table) as I called my mother with much excitement. Some weeks later, on June 18, 2004, my husband and I went to our second prenatal appointment. I was down with a horrible cold and almost cancelled the appointment. At the appointment, the doctor used a Doppler device to listen to the heartbeat of the baby. But there was no heartbeat. Shortly afterwards, an ultrasound confirmed our worst fear. My new baby had passed away in-utero. I’ felt absolutely helpless. I wanted to scream at the doctor to do something, to somehow save my baby. But, nothing could be done. My husband and I exited the clinic in shock. I called and cancelled the lunch that I was supposed to have with my adviser and lab-mates to celebrate my upcoming Master’s graduation and went home. Do you know that 1 in 4 pregnancies end in a miscarriage? I was 9 weeks pregnant when I miscarried.

Once home, I sat on the stairs and called my parents. When I heard my father’s voice, I broke down and told him the news. To this day, my father won’t answer a phone call from me if he can help it because of that call. He always hopes and waits for someone else to answer it. The following week was a blur. On June 25th, 2004, I underwent a D&C surgery to remove my baby because my uterus was showing no signs of letting it go. Over the next three months, I struggled through every day. Everyone knows that the worst thing in anyone’s life is losing a child. But the worst thing about miscarriage is that no one ever acknowledges this loss – simply because the baby wasn’t born. My baby wasn’t even a fetus (a zygote is considered to be a fetus only after the gestational age of 10 weeks). It didn’t matter that in the few weeks that I knew of my baby’s existence, I had dreamed a whole life for her. It didn’t matter that I had felt the changes my body was going through to prepare for her. It didn’t matter that I had seen her heart beat on the ultrasound at my first prenatal appointment. I had no child to hold or cremate/bury and so no one could understand that my grief was a real thing.

Here are a list of things that you should NEVER say to someone who has lost a child in-utero (even if some of the things may be true):

  1. It’s all God’s plan.
  2. It is probably for the better, there was something obviously wrong with the baby and you were spared later suffering.
  3. It would have been worse if you had been further along in your pregnancy, at least it was first-trimester loss.
  4. You can have other children.
  5. You shouldn’t have announced your pregnancy so soon.
  6. It’s not really like losing a child.
  7. It is so common, it’s happened to so many people I know. They are all fine and you will be too.
  8. Once you have an other child, you will forget all about this.
  9. Time will heal.
  10. Practically everyone has experienced it; 25% of pregnancies end in miscarriage.

Yes, people actually told me all the things on this list! When I went back to my OB-GYN for a post-D&C check up, I asked her why this happened and what can be done to prevent this in the future. She replied, “if this happens a few more times, we will worry about it”. Needless to say, I never went back to her.

What you can say instead:

  1. I can’t imagine what you are going through.
  2. I am here for you.
  3. If you need to talk, I will just listen.
  4. If you need to cry, I will just hold you.
  5. I am so sorry this happened to you.
  6. If you have personally experienced this loss, share your story without talking about how time will heal it all.

For it is true; unless you have experienced it, you cannot imagine what it feels like. This also goes for the pain people feel when they experience infertility or stillbirth or have a child who is sick or has special needs or have lost a child – no matter at what age. The pain felt in all these situations are all deep and different. It is simply wrong to compare one to an another and try to rank them in order of magnitude. Parents simply do not expect to outlive their children; that is not natural and no one is prepared for it.

Over the next few months, there were endless nights when I sneaked into another room at night so that my sobs would not wake my husband. So many nights I just clutched a pillow tight to somehow fill the emptiness in my heart and body. Like many women in this situation, I wondered if I had caused it somehow – had I done something wrong? or not done something right? was I too active? had I not eaten right? The hardest thing for me was to try and visualize this child. I needed to do that but I couldn’t. My husband is Caucasian with straight brown hair and green eyes and I am Asian Indian with brown skin, dark curly hair and dark eyes. I wondered how this child would have looked. I remember cutting out a picture of a mixed-race child (with curly hair like mine) from a magazine and putting it next to the one ultrasound picture that we had of the baby. Some weeks after my D&C the lab called to tell me that they had confirmed the “products of conception” (meaning my baby). They told me that my child was a girl and had a chromosomal disorder that was a fairly common but random occurrence. It gave me some closure; we were able to give her a name.

My fragile mind struggled with my faith in God. I was so angry at God. I could not figure out what I had done to deserve this. Then I remembered that several years ago, I had helped my Chinese roommate by accompanying her to have an abortion because she wasn’t comfortable in English and wanted someone to act as a translator. I was convinced that my participation in that event was why this had happened to me. My views changed from pro-choice to pro-life.  During this time, my sister-in-law gave birth to a beautiful girl. Jealousy knifed my heart. It took everything for me not to break down when I met the baby. But all in all, I was blessed. I conceived again in three months. I always wonder what would have happened to my sanity if I had not. Maybe God really does not give us things that we cannot handle. I could not have made it through that time without the support I had from my husband, my in-laws, and my parents.

My new pregnancy did not wipe everything away. Instead, the innocent excitement that I had felt with my first pregnancy was all gone. I was filled with terror; every prenatal appointment was a huge emotional trial. I could barely look at my husband’s face when we went in for the Doppler appointment. He was just as traumatized as me. I lived that pregnancy one day at a time. It was considered a high-risk pregnancy due to my earlier miscarriage and my insulin-resistance. I faithfully checked my blood sugar 9 times every day. I ate every 2 hours making sure to consume at least 1 egg or 2 egg-whites a day (even though I hate eggs). I could not understand women who complained about not being able to drink/smoke/eat what they want during their pregnancy. I envied those women who were blissfully and happily pregnant, because I could never relax. I could never take it for granted. After 33 weeks, I counted my child’s movement twice a day and in my 36th week I called the doctor in panic when she hadn’t moved 20 times in an hour. He had me admitted right away and after 19 hours of labor, I gave birth to my daughter (my second daughter) three weeks before her due date . She was only 4 lbs 10 oz – that’s less than 2 kgs! She had to pass a car seat test before we could take her home. She developed jaundice on the day of my discharge and the doctors suggested that I leave her in the hospital to be cared for while I was discharged (because my insurance will not pay to extend my stay). I refused; I told them I am not leaving a hospital again without my baby. We would pay what it cost for home care. When we put her in the car seat and drove home, she slept so soundly that I was afraid that she wasn’t breathing. Only when she was about 3 months old, I started relaxing and that was when the healing finally began.

I was a lot more relaxed for my third pregnancy. Today my daughter is ten and my son is seven. They both know about their elder sister who died in my womb. We talk about her often and they ask lots of questions about her. Time fills the void, but the scars remain. Since this experience I end every day with prayer; prayer for a safe pregnancy for anyone that I know is pregnant, prayer for success for anyone who is trying to get pregnant, and prayer for strength for anyone who has an ill child.

A few years ago, I was working as a public relations manager at a firm. Over the course of my time there, some HR duties were added to my job description. I was asked to talk to and discipline a young woman whose performance had fallen. I was surprised when I had a look at her file, which showed her as a hard worker whose work had deteriorated suddenly. I asked her to a private meeting and went with my instincts. I asked her if something was going on in her life that was affecting her work. I told her to think of me as a friend and talk to me. After much hesitation, she confided that she had just suffered her second miscarriage. That was all it took to bring it all back. I let her cry and told her that I understood and narrated my story. I advised her to take time out for herself and to ignore the pressure from her family. I told her that I will pray for her and made her promise me that she would let me know when she finally gave birth. I haven’t heard good news from her yet, and I haven’t stopped praying for her either.

So, this is the tale of my deepest sorrow. I struggled and I don’t know if I overcame, but I did survive. I allow myself to think of my first daughter on April 22nd, June 18th and December 31st (her due date) of each year. I hope this post brings comfort to those who have had a similar experience, sensitivity and understanding to those who haven’t, and hope to those who (unfortunately) might experience it in the future. I ended up having three children like I wanted; two of them live with me in this life. They share the space in my heart where the other one lives forever.

-AB

 

 

 

 

 

The importance of respect

Raising your children in a different culture is a challenge in so many ways. As Indian immigrants living in the US, many of us struggle to teach our kids to speak our language, learn about religious practices and cultural values. For me, this challenge is amplified because my kids were not only born in the US, but they are also biologically half-American. As my husband is American (of European descent), Indian culture is only half their heritage. In some ways, it makes it easier for my kids because my husband and I understand that their identity is half-Indian, half-American. First-generation Indian Americans probably have a tougher time convincing their fully Indian parents that the American culture is also their heritage because they were born here.

Of all the things that we teach our kids in India, the one that is close to my heart is Respect. Growing up in India, I was taught to respect so many things around me. Firstly, to respect our parents for all that they do for us. Hinduism equates parents with God itself. Then to respect those elder to us, because wisdom comes with age. Yes, even those only a year or two older in India are addressed with respect. Everyone calls older people anna or akka (elder brother or sister) or auntie or uncle. No one older to you is ever addressed by their first name. We are also taught that special respect is due to teachers who go beyond their call of duty to teach us everything. Gurus or teachers are placed even higher than parents. Besides these, we were also taught to respect inanimate things like food, books, gadgets, the environment and pretty much everything around us for its contribution to our life. We are not allowed to waste food, touch our books with our feet, and once a year we worship during Auydha pooja – we worship all the inanimate objects (from cars to computers) that help us in our every day life.

The differences stemming from the collectivist philosophies of the East and the more individualistic ones of the West means that the emphasis for respect in the US is the individual. Here, children are taught to respect individuals no matter how big or small. Although completely commendable, this practice seems to have diluted to mean respecting just oneself. In the quest to teach children to respect everyone equally, the special respects due to a person because of their age, education, or experience is lost.  Of course, inanimate things are never considered deserving of respect in this culture.

When I was a graduate student here, I had to work with a physiotherapist to help ease my heel pain. The young man grabbed a couple of tall books (maybe they were phone books like the yellow pages) and asked me to stand on top of it. I was appalled! To me books, paper etc = knowledge = God. You do not touch them with your feet, let alone step on it! When I hesitated, the physiotherapist was confused. He had no idea what my problem was and I had to launch into a long explanation about it.

Today, I struggle to teach these concepts of respect to my American children. Living in India for a few years made a big difference because I had societal support in India. Everywhere they went in India, they were expected to address elders with respect. Everyone told them not to waste food and to respect their books and other things.  But, now that we are back here, I am alone in my efforts again and I worry that my children will forget those ways.

The hardest of these to teach American children is to not waste food. America is filled with an excess of food. Processed food is cheap and plentiful.  Kids in America do not think twice about wasting food. A few months ago, I saw a family get out of their car and throw half-eaten fast food into the trash nearby. There was a little boy, about 10 years old, who opened a bottle of “Simply Orange” orange juice, took a sip, replaced the cap and then threw it in the trash. One sip was all he took of the nearly 20 oz bottle! No matter how much I teach them otherwise, my children are constantly exposed to this culture of waste. Most American kids cannot wrap their heads around the fact that there are people in developing countries who do not get three square meals a day. Wasting food really upsets me because I myself have experienced what it feels like to not be able to afford food.

In the end, all I can do is to keep telling my kids about these things and hope that it will seep into their minds over time. My husband tells me that things were not so bad when he was young and that these values were also a part of the American culture some time ago. I believe that is true because of the compliments that I get from other American parents on the respectful behavior of my kids. Every time I go to a parent-teacher conference, the teachers never forget to tell me that both my kids are extremely respectful. It gives me hope and makes me proud. I guess we (my husband and I) must be doing something right after all.

“Show respect even to people who don’t deserve it; not as a reflection of their character but as a reflection of yours.” – Dave Willis

-AB

 

 

When empathy failed me

Today I read this article about women who regret having children. Apparently, there is even a Facebook page dedicated to providing support for such people. Upon reading this, I felt astonished, a bit disgusted, and then a mix of irritation and anger. So I decided to delve into these emotions and figure out why this affected me so.

Fact #1: I tend to be conservative. By this I don’t mean to say that society should not change or that all change is bad. The key word here is “tend”. Many a times my initial reactions are conservative. Then I think deeper about issues and my actual actions end up being different.

Fact #2: I am totally fine with people who do not want kids. In fact, I appreciate those who have the good sense to know what they do and do not want. If someone knows that they are not cut out for parenthood and choose to be childless, they are doing themselves and the whole world a favor. Motherhood is sacred to me, but I get that it takes all kinds of people to make the world.

However, this “I have kids but I regret having them” just rubs me the wrong way. When I initially felt disgust after reading the article, I told myself “hey there, slow down. Don’t be so quick to judge. You do not know their lives, so don’t make up your mind so fast”. But really, unless you had kids and you were so bad at parenting that they turned out to be serial killers or something, I don’t get how a parent can say that. I certainly do not understand how there can be so many people who feel that way. It is true that the internet brings even small groups of like-minded people from the world together, but it really stunned me that there is a Facebook page for this.

Most if not all people who are ambivalent about parenting usually fall in love with their baby at some point or another. It may not be the first time they see them or hold them, but it most certainly happens at some stage. You have to be a special kind of weird to go through parenthood and then turn around and say that you regret it.

I believe that people who don’t want children just have different priorities. But these people who regret parenthood are just plain selfish. In the article that I read, this mother told her 12-year-old daughter that she regretted having kids! That to me is a whole other level. Its one thing to even regret it but to tell your child that, that is the height of selfishness!

I take pride in being very empathetic. It’s my strength and my weakness. But this time, empathy fails me.Try as I might, I am unable to put myself in their shoes. I dreamed of being a mother from the time I played with dolls as a 3-year-old. I was in love with my children even before they were conceived. I didn’t just embrace Motherhood, it completed me. This is not to say that I have never had bad days with my kids. Sometimes, when I feel frustrated at being behind in my career because of the break I took to have kids, I quickly realize that I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The article says and I quote ” Would I have published my novel by now? Would I have time to read the stack of lonely books on my nightstand?” I just do not get how one can compare accomplishing a reading challenge to having given birth and raised a whole other human being? (and if you know me, you know how important reading challenges are to me!)

Life is full of regrets. Everyone sets out to live life with no regrets, but rarely do people actually achieve that. I dare anyone to truthfully say that they have no regrets in their lives. If you can, hats off to you. But most people can’t. Regrets are inevitable, because hindsight is 20/20 and buyer’s remorse is a real thing. But to regret having children?

I just don’t get it.

This is probably the most polarized post I have posted. I just wanted to be honest. I believe in the adage that we shouldn’t judge another until we have walked a mile in their shoes, but like I said, I am unable to put myself in those shoes at this time.

-AB