My father died of colon cancer in 1999. Because of this, I am considered to have a slightly increased risk of developing colon cancer myself, and since I turned 40 this year I became eligible for my first screening colonoscopy. (Those of you who do not have first-degree relatives who developed colon cancer can generally wait until you’re 50.) I scheduled the test for today, knowing that I would be on vacation all week and would be better able to deal with the inconveniences of the exam. Well, the exam itself is not difficult at all, since you're unconscious for it; it’s the preparations that are unpleasant and inconvenient. Your colon needs to be empty, which for most American is not the usual state of affairs. So after a light breakfast yesterday morning I was restricted to clear liquids, with no dairy products, nothing red, and of course no alcohol.
I knew that this might be a challenge for me. As many of you do, I like to eat solid food. I can get very cranky if I go too long without eating something. A stomach full of liquid is not the same as a stomach full of lunch. And while I am disciplined enough to stick to such a regimen when it’s prescribed, I am not quite disciplined enough to keep a good attitude about it without some prompting. I knew I was going to need a strong dose of perspective, and luckily the opportunity presented itself: My New York officemates had voted to donate our 2007 charitable contribution to the Yorkville Common Pantry, and to volunteer for a few hours when we brought the check over, and our volunteer shift was scheduled for yesterday afternoon.
YCP offers a number of services to its community. It gives weekly grocery donations to members who live within a particular radius of the pantry, serves five breakfasts and three dinners per week to anyone who shows up, offers emergency food aid to those who need it, and even has showers available. And the need is great—and growing. According to a recent New York Times article, demand for aid at local food pantries and soup kitchens has jumped 20 percent while federal resources are dwindling. The federal government has cut back on its subsidy purchases, reducing the amount available for donation to the needy. And while various versions of the farm bill propose increases in aid, the bill itself is stalled in Congress.
People who need food aid don’t have time for political negotiations. They need to feed their kids now. Our company’s check was a drop in the bucket, which we knew beforehand, and that was one reason we also wanted to volunteer. We arrived in the early afternoon, just in time to help with the last of the dinner preparations: dishing up applesauce to be handed out as dessert. That done, we were brought to the pantry room, a small warehouse of shelves laden with donated and purchased non-perishable foods, where we assembled grocery bags for the week’s pantry distributions. Talk about a drop in the bucket: A YCP constituent with a family of 5-7 people receives one 46-ounce can of juice, 4 cans of vegetables, 2 cans of chicken, 3 cans of soup, 1 box of cereal, 2 pounds of rice, 1 pound of pasta, 1 pound of dry beans, 2 bags of bagels, plus fresh produce (which is packed separately right before distribution since it’s perishable). That’s not exactly three squares. It’s very sobering to look at the bags. As I walked among the shelves pulling cans, I could see that my relative hunger was a tiny, tiny inconvenience. I could go home and have broth and tea. Within 24 hours I’d be able to eat real food, food that I could choose for myself, with real spices, real variety. I felt grateful for my good fortune, and embarrassed that there are so many who are not so lucky.
A lot of my co-workers felt the same way. I didn’t mention to them that I was going home to drink chicken broth and take laxatives. I didn’t really want to discuss it, not because I have any delicacy about sharing with them but because I didn’t think it was a fit subject for a food pantry. So when we parted ways on the subway later I just smiled and headed home to resume my colonoscopy prep. Lucky me: At 6 I took two ordinary laxative tablets. Then at 8 I took a first dose of Fleet Phospho-Soda, a saline laxative that tastes incredibly nasty—like soured burnt salt, or perhaps like a hyper-concentrated and non-carbonated version of Coca-Cola’s Beverly, an Italian bitter aperitif (aptly described in this McSweeney’s food review—scroll way down to find it). As instructed, I followed this with three glasses of water, which were not quite sufficient to take away the taste, let alone the knowledge that I’d get to do it again at midnight. But the stuff is effective, and by morning I was definitely clean as a whistle and ready for the doctor.
My appointment was for 9:30, and not much more than an hour later I was awake again, dressed, and comforted by the knowledge that everything looked good—no polyps, no other abnormalities. Barring the development of any symptoms, I don’t have to do this again for five years, which is another reason to be incredibly grateful. And so I headed out for breakfast, and thought, I’m lucky to be able to do this. A lot of people can’t.
To find out more about food banks in your area and how you can help, visit America’s Second Harvest.