Hunger in America

from www.em-i-lis.com, re: A Place at the Table

Last night, my husband and I watched and were very moved by A Place at the Table, a new’ish documentary about hunger in America. I blogged about this film a few months back on the day many of us bloggers dedicated our day’s post(s) to this very issue. Here’s mine if you’d like to read it. At that time, A Place at the Table hadn’t been widely released; it wasn’t until yesterday that we received it from Netflix, and last night, watching it was all I wanted to do.

Not surprisingly (to me at least), I was simultaneously moved to tears, inspired, enraged, disgusted and ashamed. The documentary reminds us that in the 1970s, following public galvanization about the degree of hunger weakening America (then a smaller problem, in terms of numbers, than today), Food Stamps and other anti-hunger legislation were passed; they so adequately addressed the needs of American poor that the U.S. actually did effectively end hunger.

Today, as the rolls of hungry children and adults grow -now 50 million American citizens are hungry- we do nothing more than wring our hands and hope that another soup kitchen or food pantry pops up because otherwise, “government would overstep its bounds and spend taxpayers’ hard-earned money.” This is all hogwash. As the documentary makes abundantly clear, soup kitchens and the like, while wonderful, critical and from a true source of sincere christian* outreach, help mostly on a day-by-day or week-by-week basis. They don’t change the system that keeps people entrenched in poverty and hunger, they don’t address the food desserts that lay waste to many of our communities, they don’t make people permanently un-hungry, and they certainly don’t address wrongfully subsidized industries like agri-business, factory farms (CAFOs) and monoculture farming of corn, soy, wheat (the latter degrades the land and makes certain foods sinfully cheap and others disproportionately expensive).

That discussion is critical but it’s the meta-picture; if you only talk about policy and systems, the individuals get lost. They become faceless, nameless sufferers rather than men, women, boys and girls who are hungry and who are struggling with the many repercussions hunger wreaks: cognitive delay; stunted physical growth; shame; stigma; and so forth. Those among us who suffer most become some of society’s most invisible, and this is a tragic and a moral failure.

Barbie, a single mother of two in a poor part of Philadelphia, and Rosie, a 5th grader from a tiny town in CO, were the two individuals in A Place at the Table who most stood out to me. Barbie’s strength and determination were humbling, her daily struggles terrifying and her love for her children enormous. I truly can’t imagine the horror of wondering where I’d find food for my hungry children, of having to look them in the eyes when they pleaded for food and reply “there isn’t any.” Rosie, a darling, bright-eyed young girl, seemed so hopeful yet so, simultaneously, resigned. It pained me to hear her articulate the often-daily hunger that makes it hard to pay attention in school, hard to learn, and embarrassed about not having enough. She said that she writes “focus” on a sticker on her desk but despite her efforts to do so, sometimes looks around her classroom and sees a banana where her teacher stands, apples where her classmates sit. What on earth are we doing, now and for our future, by letting this happen?

Feeding ourselves is an elemental part of living, yet most of us take for granted the ability to do so regularly and with little thought. Of course I’ll have breakfast, lunch and dinner. Probably some snacks and treats here and there. But for too many of us, counting on all that is a pipe dream, a wishful plea almost not worth entertaining.

The U.S. is the richest country in the world, and we produce more than enough food for everyone. Yet the number of malnourished, undernourished and seriously in need is higher than ever. I look at the complete dysfunction in Congress and at that those members who wish to gut funds for food stamps, WIC, school breakfast and lunch programs and on and on, and I am, again, disgusted and ashamed.

*with the lower-case “c” I mean to imply the general belief, held by many faith communities including those not officially Christian, in helping those in need and treating those less fortunate with dignity and respect; akin to the difference in Catholic vs catholic.

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