Notre-Dame de la Faim

This blog post is included in:

No Time to Spare
Thinking About What Matters

by Ursula K. Le Guin
Introduction by Karen Joy Fowler

December 5, 2017
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt











Ursula K. Le Guin -- Photo by Marian Wood Kolischby Ursula K. Le Guin

I visited a great cathedral this week. It’s situated in a mixed industrial-small business-residential area not far from the Portland Airport, an odd place for a cathedral. But it has a huge congregation and is full of people, not just on Sundays but every day of the week.

And it’s big. Notre-Dame de Paris covers about 67,000 square feet. This one is nearly twice as big, 108,000 square feet, two full city blocks (and its overflow, adjunct building across the river covers 94,000 square feet).

Notre-Dame, with its towers, is much taller, and is built of stone all carved with saints and gargoyles, and is endearingly ancient and beautiful. This one looks rather unimpressive as you approach it, partly because there are buildings near it and you can’t really get a view of it, and partly because it wasn’t built long ago to celebrate and embody spiritual worship, but recently, in dire need, for a specific material purpose. Still, I wouldn’t discount a very large element of the spirit in the building of it.

From the outside it looks like a particularly huge warehouse, but it hasn’t the strangely menacing, fortress-like look of the great windowless citadels of consumerism, WalMart and the rest. When you get inside, you see the cathedral. The high, airy entrance hall leads you first, on a elegantly stone-tiled floor with little bronze decorations set in here and there, to an area of offices and cubicles. Most churches hide their administrative department, but this one puts it right out front. The walls are blond wood, everything is spacious and handsome. Like the high nave of Notre-Dame, the startlingly high ceiling of steel-braced wood soars above all the small human activity down on the floor beneath. In the old cathedral that height creates a great, mysterious, upper space of shadows. But the space beneath this vault is luminous.

It wasn’t till I entered the interior, the cathedral proper, that I understood why they’d built the ceiling so high. As there should be, there are great doors to open into the sacred space. And as a sacred space will do, the first sight took my breath away. I stood silent. I remembered what the word awe means.

Much of the interior of the huge building is visible from that doorway, or would be except that the whole floor is covered with immense, towering blocks and piles and stacks of crates, cartons, boxes, and containers, arranged in gigantically severe order, with wide aisles between each tower or bay. Only down the aisles can you see the far walls in the far distance. There are no permanent walls or divisions. The immense, splendidly cantilevered ceiling stretches serenely above it all. The air is cool, fresh, and clean, with the faintest smell of garden stuff, fresh vegetables. Vehicles run quietly up and down the aisles, mini-forklifts and the like, looking quite tiny among the high blocks and stacks, constantly busy at moving crates and boxes, bringing in and taking out.

Well, it isn’t a cathedral. That was a metaphor. It’s just a warehouse, after all.

But what kind of warehouse stores nothing to sell? Nothing, not one item in all these (literally) acres of goods, is or ever will be for sale.

Actually, it’s a bank. But not the kind of bank where money is the only thing that happens.

Here is where money doesn’t happen.

This is the Oregon Food Bank. Every box in the great cubical stacks between the aisles, every carton, every can, every bottle, every crate, holds food. Every carton, every can, every pound, every ounce of that food will be given to the people of Oregon who haven’t the money to buy what they need to live on.

It is a cathedral, after all. The cathedral of hunger.


Or should I say the cathedral of generosity? Of compassion, or community, or caritas? It comes to the same thing.

There are people who need help.

There are people who deny it, saying that God helps those who help themselves and the poor and the unemployed are merely shiftless slackers sponging on a nanny government.

There are people who don’t deny poverty, but they don’t want to know about it because it’s all so terrible and what can you do?

And then there are people who help.

This place is the most impressive proof of their existence I ever saw. Their existence, their efficiency, their influence. This place embodies human kindness.

In, of course, the most unspiritual, lowly, humdrum, even gross way. In a thousand cans of green beans, in towers of macaroni boxes, in crates of fresh-picked vegetables, in cold side-chapel-refrigerators of meat and cheese… In hundreds of cartons with improbable names of obscure beers on them, donated by the brewers because beer-cartons are particularly sturdy and useful for packing food… In the men and women, employees and trained volunteers, operating the machinery, manning the desks, sorting and packaging the fresh produce, teaching survival skills in the Food Bank classrooms, kitchens, and gardens, driving the trucks that bring food in and the trucks that take food out to where it’s needed.

For these towering walls and blocks and reefs of goods — 12 to 18 thousand pounds of food in each bay of the warehouse — will vanish, melt away like sandcastles, tonight or in a few days, to be replaced instantly by the supply of boxed, canned, glassed, fresh, and frozen food, which in turn will melt away in a day or a week, going where it’s needed.

And that’s everywhere. The Food Bank distributes in every county of the state of Oregon plus one county of Washington State. They don’t have to look far to find people who need help getting enough to eat.

Anywhere kids are, to start with. Many school-age children in our country, towns, and cities don’t get three meals a day, or even two. Many aren’t always sure if they’ll get anything to eat today at all.

How many? About a third of them. One child in three.

Put it this way: If you or I were a statistic-parent with three statistic-kids in school, one of our three children would be hungry. Malnourished. Hungry in the morning, hungry at night. The kind of hungry that makes a child feel cold all the time. Makes a child stupid. Makes a child sick.

Which one of our children… which child… ?


Here’s Oregon Food Bank contact info, in case any reader would like to support their work with money, or lend a hand in doing it, or find out more about it, or about similar programs in their state. Some Facts and Figures follow, for those of us who like them.




Street mail:

OFB HQ: POB 55370, Portland, OR 97238



Facts and Figures:

  • The food: In 2010-11, the OFB Network received 81 million pounds of food for distribution. (You see why they need the cathedral.)

All of it that was suitable for distribution was distributed — given away.

40% of the food came from the USDA. Nearly 38% was donated by the food industry. 18% was bought by the OFB. 4% came from food drives.

Each month, about 260,000 people received Emergency Food Boxes. Over a million boxes, this year. That’s 12% more than last year, a quarter-million more than before the Great Recession, which the money-people keep telling us never amounted to much and is over with.

The CEO, Rachel Bristol, who has been doing this work for decades, says, “I have never seen the demand for emergency food this high.”

  • The people: OFB has 130 paid employees. Thousands of volunteers donated the equivalent in workhours of 56 fulltime employes.
  • The money: Many Oregon institutions, trust funds, and businesses, including banks and Native American casinos, have and continue to donate generously.

This year there were 30,000 money donors: the average gift was under $100.

It goes a long way. Ten dollars buys a meal for thirty people.

Administrative/fundraising costs were 5.6 percent of the 56.8 million dollar total revenue (which includes the value of the food donated).

  • The distribution: The network is large and complex: food is collected and distributed by four OFB branches, 16 independent regional food banks, 923 partner agencies. OFB leads statewide community programs in education in gardening, cooking, and wise buying — how to get the most beans out of your buck — and other programs aimed at finding why people go hungry in this land of vast agribusiness and markets overflowing with food, and what can be done about it.


24 October 2011

City of the Plain, by Ursula K. Le Guin

A poem from The Wild Girls, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Play the Podcast of “City of the Plain.”

PM Press Outspoken Authors #06, May 1, 2011




Notre-Dame de la Faim — 10 Comments

  1. Superb. And there’s another similarity to Notre Dame in Paris: a food bank is specifically, undeniably Christian. Jesus explicitly commanded his followers to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Anybody who refuses to do it abjures Christianity. (Herman Cain, take a bow!)

  2. This is going to be a terrible winter. I’m not referring here merely to the weather, which does seem at least around here to have the indications of coming on early, but to the rapidly increasing numbers of the poor.

    I feel we’ve gone backwards to the NYC of the Gilded Age, the prolonged economic panic of the 1870’s, to which in veiled ways references are made in some of the novels of Louisa May Alcott, particularly via the characters who have more providing assistance to the layers and layers of what Hugo called the Miserables.

    Just this weekend we sent money via pay pal to a friend of ours, who has been waiting and waiting for that check which is in the mail but never in her mailbox. She’d run out of everything. These are the times in which I really wish I were wealthy, so that I could do something more substantial. But doing something is better than doing nothing, whatever it may be!

    We do have to help each other.

    Love, C.

  3. Brenda, if you want to take a whack at Herman Cain by saying compassion is “specifically, undeniably” Christian, of course you may do so, but please do not co-opt the Oregon Food Bank, or the work thousands of people do there, in the name of any religion. The Oregon Food Bank is not sectarian. It is secular and ecumenical in the purest sense: it is dedicated to looking after the household of humanity.
    — Ursula

  4. This is a beautiful and moving text. Thank you!
    I don’t know if there is an equivalent “cathedral” here, in France ; I had the opportunity to visit local chapels only! But the need is here too…

  5. In fact, some Christians are very “inclusive” about it – Matthew 25, 37-40 ( is sometimes interpreted in the this spirit: righteous ones are also the ones who did not recognize Christ but still did the right thing for those in need.

    Even though I consider myself Christian, I strongly dislike all claims that “overtake” anything that is considered good for Christianity, especially if it is done under the pretext that Christian ethics is the only true ethics (which actually implies that something may be good *only* because it is Christian; but one cannot recognize God as good in any meaningful way if the only way to define good is by its relation to God!). Having said that, I do not find Brenda’s post “overtaking” in this ugly way – she just wrote that *in particular* Christians are obliged to take care of others. And, historically, probably food sharing among early Christians was one of the first realisations of the food bank idea although it connected feeding the poor with liturgical aspect (but even then it did not work perfectly, as we can learn from Epistles of Paul; also, I am afraid it was mainly restricted to co-believers…).

  6. No, I am not co-opting the Food Bank, which I am sure is nonsectarian. I am deploring those ostentatiously Christian persons who turn around and denounce people for being poor or jobless, or who work to take away their health care or jobs.

  7. May I also add my never-ending admiration for wonderful willingness of American people to engage voluntarily and without goverment’s assistance into active associations, like OFB. (I think it was Alexis de Tocqueville who first noticed this difference between America and Europe in his “De la democratie en Amerique”.) Perhaps in Europe social contrasts are less visible than in the US but on the other hand, we do not have so great social activity.

  8. The ones who fill the food banks over and over are the same ones who walked away from Omelas. Blessings on you, Ms. Leguin.

  9. Ms. LeGuin, long a fan, and happy to own some autographed copies of your books.

    Thank you for highlighting in your usual beautiful, poetic way, the need that still exists in Oregon (and so many other places.) They’ve been struggling under high un- & underemployment for a very long time.

    People of all religions – and none at all – do some marvelous, sacred work taking care of their fellow man. Kudos to the Oregon Food Bank.

  10. I guess I can write in french… I won’t take the risk but it is possible that your french is better than my english. I am a researcher in gender studies and education. Your anthropological / sociological SF always is always amazing and cast a new light on gender topics and norms. I should advise my students to read SF, they will probably have more fun than with the usual sociological text and maybe, they’ll learn more.
    I wonder if your dad bring you with him, in his anthropological research when you were a child…
    Thank you for your work