I was hungry today. I’m going to be hungry tomorrow.
Same with you and everyone else. Clearly the physical sensation of hunger is a necessary part of the human condition, and isn’t going to go away. Also, we live in a society where the notion of ‘hunger’ has some positive connotations. This is the US of A and we have to ‘stay hungry’ if we want to be successful, right? So it seems that trying to ‘end hunger’ in America is about as much use as ending breathing or sleeping.
The world is full of ill-informed bloggers sounding off on subjects they know little of. And there are certainly many subjects I know little about. But I’ve toiled in the fields of hunger relief for the last decade.
For six years as Executive Director of the Community Kitchen of Santa Barbara (feeding hungry and homeless people) and for four years now with the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County.
Does that mean that by my own definition of the situation, have I been wasting my time?
I don’t think so.
What we might think of as hunger is really ‘food insecurity’ (not having the financial cushion of knowing where your next meal is coming from). Food insecurity is generally a symptom of depressed wages and benefits keeping people either on the edge of poverty or trapped within it. Yet at least one study in the Journal of Nutrition has shown up the paradox that people in countries where people have far less disposable income, there is less food insecurity than in the United States. That is because elsewhere, people know how to look after themselves with food, throw some vegetables and staples in a pot and cook something delicious which can last them.
These skills are lost to many Americans. The grandparents can cook, the parents can’t or won’t. This has led to something called ‘food illiteracy’ which is discussed in detail in another part of this blog. Organizations like mine spend a lot of their time trsying to cure the patient by throwing emergency food at him or her. Yet if we spend all our energies treating only the symptoms, then like with any other physical condition, the patient is never going to get better. We can maintain them in their current situation, but we’re often not good at helping them rise up or break free from it.
Actual starvation is not the problem we are dealing with (except in relatively rare situations). The most prevalent problem we face is malnutrition. Whether that be ‘over’ or ‘under’ nutrition, it still means poor diet. Empty wallets and pocket books leading to filling up on empty calories.
You can’t pay short on the rent or at the pharmacy for your prescriptions – but you can always cut down on the cost of food. You can fill up on junk and tame your cravings of hunger – for a while at least. Unfortunately it becomes a Catch-22 situation where the crap you eat lowers your tolerance to disease and your general health and you are more prone to illness, which can mean you are able to work less, and so have less money for food.
Janet Poppendieck in her excellent book “Sweet Charity?” looks at some studies which wrestle with a definition of hunger. It’s not an empty semantic exercise, but vital for helping shape our response. She references the Laycock Study which found that people had two concepts in their mind, a narrower and a broader definition of hunger. She quotes from a woman interviewed in one of the studies.
“Going hungry, hungry is when there is absolutely nothing in the house. But going hungry is when you have to eat the same thing all week long and you have no variation from it and you know sooner or later you’re gonna run out of that too, because its only gonna go so far. So each day you cut the portions down a little bit smaller and a little bit smaller… And you have a tendency to send your kid off to play with somebody else so that they’re there at mealtime so that they do eat.”
This latter definition of hunger has become a part of life for an increasing number of families who might look to be be getting by from the outside. They have been the largest growth area of service for food banks and food pantries.
However, this group also represents the biggest opportunity in helping the current and the next generation become not only more food secure – but food smart – with the skills to vary their diet, plan their budget and cook with what they can get, that will enable families to stay healthy, even in times of economic hardship.
Health is still possible, right in the face of apparent hunger. Stay tuned and find out how.