I was pedaling my bike past Tompkins Square on a weekday afternoon when I came upon a common sight. A long line of people started mid-block on the north side of the street, and twisted its way around the corner of Avenue A and 10th Street, making it halfway to 9th Street before giving out.
The line represented a rather diverse group of people. Some were dressed in rags and clearly homeless — they tended to be at the front of the line, as if they’d queued up hours before — while others were young and fairly well-dressed. Many were elderly, but a surprising number seemed to be recent Chinese immigrants, some of whom had half-filled bags of cans or other items scavenged from the streets.
It was like a scene from a Jacob Riis photo taken at the end of the 19th century, a kind of organized and visible poverty that you might have thought vanished in the prosperity of the late 20th century.
The folks, of course, were in a line for food handouts from a local church. On another weekday, the Hare Krishnas have run a similar program for years, and there seems to be a line of this sort somewhere in the East Village every day, made up of people too poor to buy their own food, who must wait hours for scraps.
I think of those lines every time I hear of competitive eating contests such as the one at Nathan’s, and when I hear of professional competitive eaters. Wouldn’t it make more sense to hand out the hot dogs to people on the streets who are starving? And doesn’t it send an awful message about foodies in general that we take delight in people ramming as much food down their gullets as possible for sport, as the truly hungry form mute, accusatory lines?
Here’s a modest proposal: Let’s put a moratorium on eating contests for one year, and distribute the food to the truly hungry. And let’s put a voluntary 10 percent tax on meals costing over $50, to be donated to soup kitchens and other feed-the-poor programs.