Here in America, I’ve watched mothers in the kitchen after a meal throw away more food, and better food, than I might eat in Russia in a week.... And I simply can’t help staring when people leave their plates half full, as they do so often in restaurants. Who wrote these words, and when? They were written by Walter Ciszek, a Jesuit of the Maryland Province whofalsely accused of spying for the Vaticanspent 15 years as a prisoner in the Soviet Union, first in Moscow’s Lubianka prison and then in a slave labor camp in Siberia. Following an absence from the United States of almost three decades, he offered this reflection on food and other matters after his return in 1963 in a brief article published in America. His major writings would come later: his two autobiographical books, With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me, that speak of his survivala survival based largely on his unwavering life of prayer.
In setting down his immediate impressions after his arrival here, Father Ciszek is careful to note that he is only recounting my impressions, not offering criticism. But his dismay at our wastefulness emerges not just in the matter of food, but of other commodities like paper and plastic: The waste of paper here! Everything comes wrapped in paper...and if it isn’t in paper, it’s plastic.... Then all this is thrown away and burned! In the Soviet Union, he points out, even newspaper was saved to wrap up purchases from the butcher and baker.
He was also stunned by the comparative luxury of middle-class housing: The idea that one family should occupy six, seven or eight rooms! A house that had four rooms was a luxury in Siberia, and even then the spare’ room was generally rented out. So soon after his arrival, he would have known little about the very different housing resources of poor families throughout the country.
We do indeed live in a wasteful society. My Spanish teacher tells me that at the public school where she teaches in the Bronx, students routinely toss unopened cartons of milk into garbage cans at lunch time; nor is the staff allowed to put aside any remaining unopened cartons. And as I walk home from America House to the Lower East Side in the late afternoon, I see Dumpsters filled with everything from television sets to computers to venetian blinds, tables, chairs and mattresses. Then there is the flinging away of clothes, even on the sidewalk.
I often notice homeless men and women bent over trash receptacles in search of whatever might help them to survivenot only the more obviously useful items, like clothing or soda cans that can be redeemed for a little change, but also styrofoam food containers with the contents only half consumed. One hot day I noticed a man wearing a red knit cap using a stick to poke through a steel trash can in an upscale West 57th Street neighborhood. He symbolized the foraging of the destitute in a city notable for its extremes of wealth and poverty in the richest nation in the world.
The present high levels of wastefulness can perhaps be attributed in part to the booming economy. But as Father Ciszek saw, even on his return in 1963, the habits of waste had taken firm root. A frequent refrain heard in many American households is: Shall we keep this? No, let’s throw it out is often the reply. And yet, as the annual Mayors’ Report on Hunger and Homelessness has shown, homeless men and womenand childrenare filling shelters and seeking help at food pantries and soup kitchens more than ever before. At the end of his brief reflection, Father Ciszek says: I am an American, happy to be home; but in many ways I am almost a stranger. Some who have never left the country may feel the same way, as the gap widens between the housed and the non-housed, the fed and the hungry.