For this installment of the Maine, Thankfully series, I talked with Craig Hickman. Hickman is a writer, poet, community activist, farmer and Maine State Legislator. Out of Annabessacook Farm, Hickman grows food that he shares with the community, and those efforts have broadened and expanded over the years. “We are kind of a food center,” he says, “A mini food bank, right here in little ol’ Wintrhop.”
I can tend to be so cynical about politicians and the nature of that game, but knowing Craig is working in the Legislature always gives me a spot of hope. An out, black poet and farmer committed to fighting hunger working in the State House? Yes, please. I like to suggest that Hickman happens to be a Legislator, though that it is something to be celebrated, not held against him.
I met Hickman a handful of years ago at an event and I—as many who have encountered him tend to do—fell in love with him immediately. He is warm, funny, striking and poetic (he is literally a poet). Considering his efforts to help reduce hunger within his community, I felt he was perfect to profile on Thanksgiving Day.
You give food from your farm to those in need. Can you talk about how you came to start doing that?
We have always been giving away food, but we started talking about it publicly when we had an issue where our food pantry in town was challenged. We became an adjunct food pantry and publicized the fact that we would put extra harvest for people to pick up, no questions asked. When our local soup kitchen was having financial trouble, we cooked meals out of our kitchen and shared them with our community once a week. We continued that with our free food farm stand, which we still have. It’s not just me; there are tons of caring and compassionate people around here who have helped. People will bring food to the farm when our excess harvest gets low. People drop off turkeys and animals and hunters bring food here. We are kind of a food center, a mini food bank, right here in little ol’ Wintrhop. And we need it. Our community has more poverty than you can see at close glance and there are more hungry people around here than you can know. You can never tell if a person is hungry by how they look, what they drive or how many gadgets they have. You can judge, but if you haven’t walked in their shoes you can’t know. I’ve always believed in the least amongst us. That is what drove my parents and that’s what drives me. I want to make sure that we all can eat, no questions asked.
Where does your spirit of generosity come from?
My mother, that’s easy. My mother. I always tell the same story when someone asks why I do what I do. When I was a little kid, probably two or three, a 12-year-old girl—something like that—came knocking on our door. She smelled of dried urine. My mother took her in and gave her a bath, let her take a nap and then she sat her down at our kitchen table and she saved her a meal of Cream of Wheat, bacon and toast. The girl devoured it. I never forgot that image of what hunger actually looked like. I mean, we were poor, but my mother always told us that no matter mow little we had, someone always had less and so we had to help them when we could. She demonstrated that by taking in girls, giving them a change of clothes and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and sending them on their way. I never ever forgot that kitchen vignette. It just made sense that this is what you do and there was no discussion beyond understanding that you just help people who have less than you have. If someone asks for the shirt of your back, you give it to them. That’s where it comes from.
Who else along the way have you come to look up to?
There are people in this community who are extremely generous, though I don’t look to them as role models, I look at them as people who care. We were very religious when we grew up and charity was just a part of service. Everyone I was around was a role model in that regard. My mother was just the closest to me. My father was also very generous. He understood the power of feeding the community. He grew food and he taught me how to grow food. From both of my parents I learned how to grow food and share it with people.
My mother is still alive and she is in a nursing home. Even when she was struggling with cancer, she was still doing things for those less fortunate than she. My mother and father adopted us. You take someone else’s kid, you know, and take them as your own… I don’t think there is any stronger role model than that. Who does that? A lot of people do, but it is not to say that it is not difficult. You don’t know where that kid came from and you are taking them in as your own. That is living in grace, I think, and my parents lived in grace. I try to just live in grace.
Can you talk a bit about what hunger looks like in your community?
In some ways I live at the foot of Mt. Pisgah… It is down my road and to the right, let’s put it that way. It’s a part of Appalachia. When we think of Appalachia, we think of West Virginia and Kentucky. I think of the “War on Poverty” and I think of the photos of JFK in West Virginia. That’s what a lot of people think of when we say Appalachia. That is not gone and it has not far away. In fact, if you were to drive around the foot of Mt. Pisgah, you would see poverty like you’ve never seen before right here in my back yard.
When you’re trying to meet your community, you go in and see things that you wouldn’t see in your every day. That’s why community service is so powerful to me because you get to see who lives where you live and you get to know who the least amongst you are. You know that all of us need to be lifted up. We can’t act as though hunger is true in some third world country when it is in our own backyards. The price of food has gone through the roof. There are people who work hard, who have jobs, who can’t necessarily make ends meet. They have to sign up for food stamps or go to a food pantry and feel humiliated the whole time because that’s not who they are as far as they are concerned. They are in a place where even though they have a roof over their head and they have a car to drive and their kids are getting a decent education, sometimes they can’t make ends meet because their salary isn’t enough for the cost of their living. And they haven’t done anything wrong and they haven’t been lazy and yet they still need help with food. You’ve got poverty and not knowing where your next meal is going to come from.
Hunger is not always related to poverty, which sounds odd. Poor people from all over the world have been feeding themselves forever on things like wild vegetation, hunting, fishing, growing beans, and cooking simple, nutritious meals. While poor people are not always hungry—I was dirt poor and never hungry—hunger is always a part of a lack of resources to make your ends meet. Obviously if you are impoverished, it can be dire and oppressive. Another of my favorite James Baldwin quotes is “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” That is exactly true. You never have enough money to buy things in bulk or to pay your car note and so you can’t necessarily get to a farmers market or a super market. You have to go to a corner store where the price of what is packaged there is more expensive than it would be somewhere else. It is extremely expensive to be poor and we don’t talk about that a lot. The language of the last few campaign cycles has been that poor people are poor because they are shiftless and lazy and don’t want to work. I don’t see that to be true. It is just not my experience that I see with my own eyes wherever I go. If those people exist, I don’t see them. I just don’t see them.
How can readers help aid you in your efforts?
It is the simplest thing. Grow a garden, even if you don’t have a lot of land. Grow it in a pot. Grow food. You probably won’t eat it all. You probably won’t. Grow a garden and you will have more to share with people. That will probably get you going. I think it is human nature to share food with people. In some ways, I just ask people to be human. Grow your own food, share it, and see where that takes you.