Motherhood & Words

“What are we going to do?” Cooper said to his wife. They were lying in bed at sunrise, when they liked to talk. His hand was on her thigh and was caressing it absently and familiarly. “What are we going to do about these characters? They’re on the street corners. Every month there are more of them. Kids, men, women, everybody. It’s a horde. They’re sleeping in the arcade, and they’re pushing those terrible grocery carts around with all their worldly belongings, and it makes me nuts to watch them. I don’t know what I’m going to do, Christine, but whatever it is, I have to do it.” With his other hand, he rubbed his eyes. “I dream about them.”

“You’re such a good person,” she said sleepily. Her hand brushed over him. “I’ve noticed that about you.”

“No, that’s wrong,” Cooper said. “This has nothing to do with good. Virtue doesn’t interest me. What this is about is not feeling crazy when I see those people.”

“So, what’s your plan?”

from “Shelter” by Charles Baxter

These are the facts:

36.2 million Americans – including 12.4 million children – don’t have access to enough healthy food to thrive. They are food insecure and at risk of hunger.

In Minnesota, an estimated 1 in 10 children lives in poverty and 1 in 3 qualify for free and reduced lunches.

Since 2000, food shelf use in Minnesota has increased by 70%.

I know people are struggling right now. Hell, we’re struggling. But this is the truth: I can’t imagine having to put Stella and Zoë to sleep hungry. I can’t imagine telling them that there is no more food in the house, that there is nothing left to eat. I can’t imagine listening to them cry because their stomachs are empty.

But it happens every day across the country. It happens every day in Minnesota.

In 1984, an organization called Share Our Strength (SOS) was started by Bill and Debbie Shore with the belief that “everyone has a strength to share in the global fight against hunger and poverty, and that in these shared strengths lie sustainable solutions.” Working with Share Our Strength, creative writing programs at universities across the country began to give readings to benefit the fight against hunger. One night a year, hundreds of writers shared their words and raised money for Share Our Strength.

Twenty-five years later, there are only a handful of writing programs still hosting readings to end hunger. Some still raise money for SOS, some raise money for local food shelves. But for the most part, these readings have disappeared.

Charles Baxter, author of novels Feast of Love, Saul & Patsy, The Soul Thief, and numerous collections of stories (and whose writing I’ve discussed here and here), was the national Co-Chair for the SOS reading initiative at one point, and he wants to continue the fight against hunger here in Minnesota with the second annual Benefit for Hunger Reading at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, October 27th at the University of Minnesota Coffman Memorial Theater.

Host Charles Baxter will be reading with Michael Dennis Browne, M. J. Fitzgerald, Ray Gonzalez, Patricia Hampl, and Madelon Sprengnether, all University of Minnesota Creative Writing Program faculty.

It’s free, with a suggested donation of $5 (or more or less, whatever you can afford to give), which will benefit the Second Harvest Heartland foodshelf.

I’m pleased to say that Charles Baxter is here at Mother Words today to talk a little about the benefit reading:

KH: Can you tell me a little about Share Our Strength (SOS) and the involvement of writing programs across the country in the fight against hunger?

CB: I don’t know whose idea it was to come up with autumn harvest readings for hunger relief, but I DO know that at one time there were upwards of eighty readings nationwide for this particular cause. And there was even an anthology of stories, the proceeds from which went to SOS. (These anthologies are titled Writer’s Harvest and are available, used, from Amazon.)

KH: Can you talk a little about why this issue is important to you?

CB: In my third book of stories (A Relative Stranger), there’s a story called “Shelter,” about homeless people. For some reason—who knows why?—I’m particularly disturbed by the sight and the fact of homeless people and people who are hungry. There’s so much wealth in this country, you’d think these problems wouldn’t exist at all. But they do. The main character in “Shelter” is named Cooper, and even Cooper’s wife isn’t sure why he is bothered so much by the existence of misfortune in others. Sometimes I think: well, it could have happened to anyone; it could have happened to *me*.

KH: You mentioned that a few creative writing programs are still doing benefit readings to help end hunger, but that the coordinated effort has dissolved. What made you want to renew it here in Minnesota?

CB: A couple of years ago, I was constantly angry at the state of affairs in this country, and I realized that I could remain angry or I could DO something.

Hunger in this country is a huge problem, but people don’t like to talk about it. In Minnesota, more than half the people who benefit from food shelf donations are children, 15% are senior citizens, 35% of Minnesotans report that they or someone in their family has visited a food shelf, and 15% of Minnesotans report that they or someone in their family went to bed hungry during the previous month.

Part of the problem with the readings in the 1980s was that all the money went to the national organization, which then distributed the money to places in the US where hunger or malnourishment were worst. But this reading will benefit local organizations.

On the 27th, I’ll introduce the event, speak about 2nd Harvest Heartland, and introduce the speakers, each of whom will read for about 5-7 minutes. We’ll also have a speaker from 2nd Harvest Heartland. My goals are to raise consciousness of this problem among the U of MN student body, and to raise money for hunger relief.

KH: I’m curious about the connection between art and social justice. What obligation do you think we have as writers to make a difference in the world, either through our writing or other community service initiatives?

CH: Well, that’s a tricky question, because I’m not sure that artists are obligated to do anything, as far as their art is concerned, except to create the best art they can. But as human beings, we are all obligated to each other, and if I can use what I can do, or show, as an artist to raise some money for a good cause, then that’s what I’ll do. If you’re a bricklayer, your only obligation is to do a good job, but in the rest of your life, all the great wisdom literatures say that you should practice charity in your life and hospitality toward the stranger. Artists don’t have any greater obligation than anyone else, but they surely don’t have a lesser obligation, either.

Thanks for talking with me, Charlie!

If you’re here in the Twin Cities, you can come out to this wonderful reading, and have the chance to put food in a child’s stomach. If you are outside of Minnesota, maybe you could think about donating to your local food shelf or to Share Our Strength.

So, what’s your plan?


I have been teaching creative writing for almost twenty years. Reading about other women’s lives and experiences has expanded my world. To be able to walk in someone else’s shoes, whether it’s for a moment or an hour or a few days, is an incredible gift, providing me with insight into the human experience. It takes courage to write your truths, especially if it doesn’t seem as though anyone cares, as though anyone is listening. Let me tell you: your stories matter, I’m listening, and I’m here to help you find the heart of those truths, to get them down on the page, to craft them, and to send them out into the world. Together, we will change the world, one story at a time.


  1. cath c on October 20, 2009 at 6:06 pm

    now that you've brought it up, i don't have a plan. when my garden was tomato abundant, i donated two bags of them to my local shelter organization, and when i had never used formula and leftover baby food taking up space, i did the same.

    on a regular basis i donate outgrown clothes to another local shelter organization that has a thrift store to raise funds.

    but now that you mention it, maybe it's just about time i write a story on the unlikeliness feelings of food pantry 'shopping' – have been there. it's been a long time, but it's humbling to to ahve to walk through those doors and not be on the giving end. there's no worse feeling than that of not being able to provide the next for your kids.

    now that we're doing better, i am forever grateful that when i needed it, someone else donated, so when i can, i do.

  2. Mary on October 20, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    We have 6 fruit trees in our yard which is a nightmare with a kid with Prader-Willi syndrome. A couple of years ago a local mom started collecting the unwanted fruit from all the neighborhood trees and donating them to shelters, schools, and nursing homes. I've been so grateful to her — our yard is safe, the fruit is not wasted, and is going to great causes. Time to call her again!! Thanks for the reminder.

  3. bmiad on October 20, 2009 at 8:40 pm

    This year, we grew quite a bit of food and donated it to a food shelf found through Ample Harvest ( I know veggie gardening isn't your big thing, but some of your readers might appreciate knowing what to do with extra, or be inspired to grow extra on purpose. Food shelves get so much unhealthy expired baked goods and food mixes. That, and reliance on bad corner-store food where there isn't a decent grocery store available are part of why there are quite a few people in homeless shelters who are actually obese despite being genuinely "food insecure". You can get a Totino's pizza at Target for $1, or a single tomato for the same price. So food shelves really need staples like rice and beans and especially produce. And, I'm not sure hunger will ever end until there is a critical mass of empowered people who are willing to "see" it, so I help my boys each pick out a food shelf item every time we go shopping together. Helps with math and teaching about nutrition too! Great post.

  4. cath c on October 20, 2009 at 9:17 pm

    i am thrilled to see this discussion, especially getting fresh produce on food pantry shelves, but there is another need that often is forgotten in the hunger campaign: personal hygiene items, particularly of feminine hygiene, diapers and wipes variety. and good old-fashioned toilet paper.

    when we donate through our church to a local LINK (Local Interfaith Network) chapter, that is an oft repeated drive request.

  5. Elizabeth on October 20, 2009 at 10:45 pm

    Thanks for this post, Kate, and the interview with such a great writer. I particularly love that this effort is local and I will certainly go out and look for something local to do. And I'll do it tomorrow. Thanks for information, the sobering statistics, the reminder, the impetus.

    And thank you, Mr. Baxter, for your wonderful writing and efforts on behalf of the hungry.

  6. kate hopper on October 21, 2009 at 11:53 am

    Thanks, all, for sharing your ideas, what you're doing to make a difference. And thank you, Cathy, for mentioning how humbling it was to go to the foodshelf yourself. This means a lot to me.

  7. claire on October 23, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    I so appreciate this awareness, on your part and certainly on the part of Charles Baxter, which enlarges art to encompass the concrete struggles of hunger. It inspires me to push harder to do this in my own field.

  8. Kara on October 28, 2009 at 10:19 am

    I have bagged up all the baby food I bought for Blake that he won't touch to give to CAP. And I did it with a slightly heavy heart that there are babies that don't have enough food. I am so so grateful that my children don't want for food–for anything. Even though I always try to give away clothes, food, give whenever I can it never feels like enough.

  9. Erin on October 29, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    I recently read "The Glass Castle" by Jeannette Walls. During her memoir Jeannette tells of having to search through garbage at her school for food. This scene really touched. It is such a good feeling to not only have my children eating but eating well. I can't imagine being a mother that has to put her children to bed hungry.

    My local grocery store often does a drive for Foodlink; providing food for hungry children. Yesterday after donating a small amount of money I proceeded to buy myself a large vanilla latte that cost over 4 dollars!!!! After leaving the store the idea of drinking such an expensive latte did not sit right. Next time I will give that four dollars to Foodlink and make myself a coffee at home.