Sep 292015
 

Last week I wrote about growing up hungry. If you missed Part 1 of this blog, click here.

Yesterday’s local paper carried the headline that 450 local students were homeless and needed food and other items to survive. As I wrote last week, I am haunted by a billboard on our way to the interstate that reads “One in Four Children in North Carolina will go to bed hungry tonight”.

Just last week, I visited my baby sister, Jane, in Southern Georgia who has just been diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer. It was also a re-visit to my childhood. She and her family are low-income, and were constantly looking for how to buy food items cheap without regard to quality. They only bought things they called “BOGO.” When I asked what that meant, they laughed at me and said it meant “Buy One, Get One” free. As the five of us ate around the kitchen table in her trailer, which had to be folded out into the kitchen, with only one dining chair and one office chair (we used stools and ottomans to fill in), I was struck by the fact that growing up, we didn’t even have room for a table in our tiny trailer. I realized how easy it is to become too comfortable and to forget how lucky I am today to even own a dining room table!

Another memory my sister and I laughed about as we walked down memory lane, was a time when my family was working in the tomato fields. Jane, toddling behind us at age three would pull off tomatoes one after the other and eat the whole thing like an apple. When the owner of the farm saw her, he yelled at us and said no more of “his” tomatoes could be pulled off the vine and eaten. We had to explain this in detail to a three-year old. After a while, we didn’t see Jane and started looking for her. We found her lying flat on the red clay under a tomato plant, eating the tomato without taking it off the vine.

Today, there are even fewer opportunities – especially in towns and cities with no space, knowledge or ability to grow food– to find access to food. Some people get creative by stealing, dumpster diving, and/or begging to get some money just to get some food to eat.

Obviously this is not a long-term solution, or a safe one. I once had an employee in North Carolina who told me when she was unemployed, her children were crying for food, so she took them into the only local grocery store. She had them pick up their choice of fruit and eat it. Then they moved on and picked up a loaf of bread, plastic wear in the deli, and peanut butter and jelly to make sandwiches. She opened milk and let her children drink all they wanted. They also hit the juice aisle. Then to top it off, they went to the cookie aisle, and had their fill of dessert.

After her children were full, she took all the empty (or partially empty) packages up to the customer service and told them what she had done and why. The manager allowed her to keep the leftovers but told her to never come back into the store. As an African-American and poor woman in our racist community, she was lucky she wasn’t arrested and taken to jail on the spot!

It’s hard to imagine being hungry. It’s been at least 43 years since I was last hungry, but I still carry the fear and worry that I grew up with about not having enough to eat. I hate thinking about those days of being hungry. I certainly over-compensate now! I always carry food with me, even if it’s a day trip and I know there are grocery stores and restaurants around. Forget, a plane ride! Even for a two-hour flight, I make sure I have enough food for at least 24 hours. I know this isn’t rational. I try to not act from this place of fear, but it’s ingrained into my very being.

Food insecurity affects our psyche. It affects our long-term health as adults. It affects how we understand (or not) about helping our children make healthy choices.

While you can buy a whole burger or other foods at a fast food restaurant for $1, when it costs much more to buy food to cook a healthy meal in the grocery store, it’s easy to go to what many people would consider “bad choices.”   I remember riding by Hardee’s (a fast food chain) and wishing my parents could afford to spend 15 cents on a hamburger. I got my first taste of fast food at McDonald’s when I was 19 – a Big Mac Meal (with fries & drink) for $1.50!

“According to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 49 million people in the United States lived in households struggling to find enough food to eat. Nearly 16 million are children, who are far more likely to have limited access to sufficient food than the general population. While 15.9% of Americans lived in food-insecure households, 21.6% of children had uncertain access to food.

Incidence of diabetes and obesity are especially high in the states with high rates of food-insecurity (25 to 41%). “People who live in homes that are food-insecure have twice the rate of type 2 diabetes,” said Fraser. Five states with the highest food-insecurity among children — Mississippi, Georgia, Arkansas, Texas, and North Carolina — had obesity rates above the national rate of 27.1%”. [USA Today]

I wonder if you can remember ever going hungry. Was it for one day (you hated the liver and your parents refused to give you anything else, or used withholding food as punishment), or was it for hunger that went on for days on end? It might have been like my family, where all you had for weeks at the end of winter were potatoes, as we grew them and buried them under ground to last us through the winter. And of course, biscuits and flour gravy was an added staple.

My stories may make you want to give to “hunger” groups or help out at soup kitchens. This is a wonderful temporary solution and of course, a needed action. But it is far from being the answer. The more soup kitchens, food pantries, and food programs we’ve created – both through government and through individual efforts – the worse the problem has gotten. We have to go beyond these extremely important social services, and address these issues to create the social changes needed to stop this problem in the first place.

As rich people in the United States continue to get richer, working-class and poor people have continued to see a drop in their buying power, especially in the rising cost of food. If you go to a school in a poor community, the food is much less nutritious or healthy than other schools in middle-class communities!

What can YOU do? Get involved! Electing politicians who are not representing the rich, or who truly understand and advocate for poor and working-class people, is a critical first step. Working on changing laws like promoting living wages, protecting laws like food stamps, school food programs, and welfare are also extremely important.

First and foremost we need to start talking about this issue! We need to educate ourselves about how serious this problem is. How did you experience hunger, if ever?

I encourage you to write your comments – about ever being hungry, about having an overabundance of food, about how much food you waste, or about actions we can take to solve these problems in the comment sections below.

Help us at Spirit in Action continue this conversation, continuing our work organizing poor people to address these issues through our local program in the Appalachia, We the People: Working Together.

While the actions listed above will help move us in the right direction, there’s no “quick fix” when it comes to dealing with our broken economic system. Please consider making a long-term gift for our work to build a fair and equitable economy. Please consider becoming a SIA Super Supporter by setting up a monthly gift today!

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Sep 212015
 

A couple weeks ago, I got fooled into eating some alligator at a festival (I thought it was a super-sized chicken finger) and also frog legs (which I thought were chicken wings).  The taste is different, although does resemble some taste of chicken in the mix; but they are certainly not something I would choose to eat.

Interestingly enough, I grew up eating these foods, in addition to turtle, rabbit, squirrel, snake, and occasionally, bear.  I ate these foods because we were very poor and this was what “poor” people ate when they couldn’t afford to buy foods like chicken or beef.

Today these items are sold as a delicacy in some fancy restaurants, or at festivals, and are very expensive.  My stomach still turns at the idea of having had to eat these things, especially bear!  But when we were hungry, and it was one of our only sources of protein, we welcomed it into our hungry bellies.

In the United States, the richest country in the world, one in five children goes to bed every night hungry or malnourished.  It’s a hard fact to swallow.  I am haunted by the billboard I see as I drive out of my community that says one in four children go to bed hungry in North Carolina.

How can a country this rich and privileged allow that to happen? 

There are many wonderful programs out there trying to address the problem:  school lunch programs, food stamps, soup kitchens, food pantries, etc., but it is not enough!

We have to look at the root of the problem.  Why is our government actually not paying attention to this?  Why is there such a push to cut programs like food stamps, school food programs, and welfare while often blaming poor people as being stupid or lazy?  Or, accusing the fact that so many children are hungry (and homeless) as somehow being their parents’ fault and therefore not their responsibility.

Just to set the record straight: my father was not lazy.  He worked seven days a week as a tenant farmer and picked up other odd jobs.  He worked 12 to 16 hour days.  I started working in tobacco and in the fields when I was 10-years old.

Even though we worked all the time, we often did not have enough to eat in my years growing up and being malnourished for months on end. We were going to bed hungry because after dividing the small pot of food into the plates of two adults and three growing children, it was just not enough to satisfy our hunger. We would often depend for days on end on a staple of pinto beans, which we could grow and store.  For a long time after, I couldn’t eat them, although I have grown to like them again.

Today, our movement refers to this phenomenon as “food insecurity”.  I call it hungry or malnourished.  Growing up, I thought hungry looked like the poor starving children advertised on television with large crying eyes and bloated stomachs.  I had no reason to complain. I don’t want to discount the necessity to addressing starvation as an international crisis as well.  But we also need to understand the impact of hunger and malnourishment in children today.

How do we understand hunger?  How do we look at the fact that the majority of states that have the highest rates of hunger, also have the highest rates of diabetes and obesity in children?

I never went out to a restaurant or actually had a steak until I was 17 and was invited by a friend’s family. I was appalled at spending $10 on a meal.   I never had Chinese food, pizza, or other ethnic food served in restaurants, or even things like broccoli and asparagus, as we didn’t grow those things in the hot South.  I was 27 before I tasted any of these foods.  At the age of 44, my wife and I went out to eat, I became hysterical and ran to the car just because she would dare to not order the cheapest entrée, but also ordered an appetizer, a soda, and a dessert.

My most spectacular memory of food though was when I was a teenager and my father had enough money to go to the gas station on Fridays nights and buy 10 cooked hotdogs with buns for $1.  On special occasions, he also bought a Baby Ruth candy bar which 5 cents and had two small bars in the package.  For dessert, my parents would get one bar cut into two pieces.  And us girls would get a bar cut into three pieces.  Ecstasy!

Some harder memories are the fact we ate dirt as small children.  Why? We craved the nutrients in the red clay dirt of rural piedmont North Carolina.  Poor pregnant women especially craved the clay that I now know is rich in calcium, iron, copper and magnesium. These are essential minerals for the human diet but even more critical during pregnancy.

First and foremost we need to start talking about this issue!  We need to educate ourselves about how serious this problem is.  How did you experience hunger, if ever? 

I encourage you to write your comments – about ever being hungry, about having an overabundance of food, about how much food you waste, or about actions we can take to solve these problems in the comment sections below.

Help us at Spirit in Action continue this conversation and continuing our work organizing poor people to address these issues through our local program in the Appalachia, We the People: Working Together.

Next week, I will send out part 2 of this hunger blog as part of a series of blogs about experiencing poverty.  Please resend this blog to your contacts.  Thanks.