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Commentary: We Are Not Powerless

Beth Howard
Beth Howard donated fresh tomatoes to the Fort Madison Food Pantry.

There’s been an onslaught of distressing news these days, news so bad that you think it can’t get any worse, and then it does. So. Much. Worse. The world’s problems are so big, so overwhelming and seemingly so unsolvable that we feel powerless to do anything.

But I’ve discovered several examples in the past week that prove we are more powerful and can have more influence than we think.

First, I watched two inspiring documentary films. The first is called “ABUNDANCE: The Farmlink Story,” a 20 -minute film about a couple of college kids who, during the pandemic, were troubled by world hunger and food waste, both of which are issues in our own country. These young people recognized a need to connect farms that had a surplus of produce with food banks. What started with a few phone calls and emails, and a lot of determination, these young people have created a program that to date has rescued over 130 million pounds of food and made more than 108 million meals possible, all with the help of volunteers. I was so inspired by Farmlink’s work that after watching the film I immediately went out to the garden, picked 25 pounds of tomatoes, and took them to the food bank in Fort Madison. To my happy surprise, a farmer had just dropped off 70 pounds of sweet potatoes from his field. If every gardener or farmer took their excess vegetables to the food bank, we could actually solve hunger issues. What’s more, produce left to rot creates greenhouse gases, so it would be helping put a dent in climate change as well.

The other film that moved me is called “Dear Santa,” about the Operation Santa program run by the US Postal Service. The post office collects all the letters sent to Santa and then, through the program, lets people read them to decide which ones they want to adopt. After adopting a letter, or several letters, they fulfill the kids’ wishes, many of which are simple and unselfish. Some want food for their family, others want a hug. And they’re not just letters from kids. One single mother wrote asking for household goods and a new couch. Santa delivered! You want to feel empowered? Sign up for the Operation Santa program, adopt some letters, and deliver some happiness.

Another inspiring example is a retired librarian I just met in Burlington. She was frustrated by how library funds were being allocated, so she decided to run for city council, even though she had never run for office before. Her desire to save library programs that benefit the community outweighed any age or health issues. Whether she wins or loses the election, just taking the initiative generated a sense of power for her. It could do the same for you.

Then I learned about Kaylee Williams in Des Moines, who started a mission called Eat Free Pie. It began, she told me, when her elderly neighbor, who was living alone, asked her if she would make him a pie for Thanksgiving. While making his pie she thought there must be a lot of other lonely people out there who would like one. That single pie led to an annual Thanksgiving pie giveaway, where volunteers bake homemade pies that get delivered to anyone who requests one. The first year they delivered forty pies. Now in its fourth year, this Thanksgiving they’ll deliver hundreds. Kaylee hopes the idea catches on in other towns. I do too. Remember, like the Butterfly Effect, what started with one pie has grown into a whole movement.

We may be heartbroken, depressed, and even afraid, but we are not powerless. As musician Joan Baez so wisely said, “Action is the antidote to despair.” So take action. Take groceries to your local food bank, fulfill a stranger’s Christmas wish, run for public office, bake a pie for someone who could use a lift, or come up with your own way of engaging. No matter how small the gesture, you’ll make someone’s life better and that will make you feel better, even empowered. We may never know the eventual impact our individual efforts will have in the larger world, but we have to keep the faith that each and every contribution matters. We have to keep flapping our butterfly wings. Because it’s better than doing nothing. 

Beth Howard is an author and pie baker who lives on a farm in Donnellson, Iowa. Learn more about her work at

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.