The Face of Hunger in America

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Several months ago New York University School of Law’s International Center for Human Rights issued a report entitled “Nourishing Change: Fulfilling the Right to Food in the United States.” The main purpose of the report is to propose a new approach to the problem of hunger in America, one that shifts the focus from food assistance as charity to adequate food as a human right. Along with its overview of nutritional assistance programs and its case for treating food as a human right, the report also includes boxed articles, obtained from the Jewish hunger relief organization MAZON, that reveal “the new face of hunger.” The following cameo portraits provide summaries of several of these entries. The photos below are by renowned photojournalist Barbara Grover, who was commissioned by MAZON for this project. More photos of the subjects can be found in the report (see the link above).

 Melissa (New York City) is 62 years old, a U.S. citizen, with a bachelor’s degree. She used to be a substance abuse counselor but she lost her job a few years ago when the program went bankrupt. When she was discharged, she had to spend her retirement money on rent and now has nothing. She lives with her daughter and three grandchildren. Her daughter and granddaughter receive food stamps, but she herself does not participate in the program because she doesn’t want to cause problems for her daughter or grandchildren. She does not have a retirement fund. When she was employed, Melissa used to refer clients to a food pantry, but now she is going to the pantry herself. “Without the food pantry,” she writes, “I don’t know what I would do.”

Emory (Branden, Mississippi) was working in home renovations, but he lost his job when his boss’s business was hit by the recession. The job loss cut his household income in half, and he and his wife face difficult decisions every day about how to allocate the little money they have. Sometimes they must choose between eating or paying their electricity bill.  He doesn’t qualify for food stamps. They can’t often afford to buy the fresh foods they like and thus their meals are often limited to processed foods. He says: “Last night for dinner, I ate some crackers and cheese and some kind of, shall we say, processed meat. There are many times that instead of making myself a salad, I’ll have ramen noodles…. You can buy a case of them for a dollar and change.”

Jessica lives on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. She is a wife and mother, with one son. Her husband was an excellent student in high school but he decided against going to college because their friends with college degrees were not getting jobs. He became a dishwasher and her family ended up on food stamps.  When her husband got a fifty-cent raise, earning about $20 extra a month, their food stamps were cut by $75 a month. She tries to use their food stamps on healthy food rather than on cheap junk food. But, she writes, “there are times when all we have left to eat is ramen. It’s a little depressing, but at least we have ramen.” It is her commitment to her family that sustains her through her ordeal: “What keeps me going is that I’m just stubborn, and I love my parents, my husband and my son.”

Tiffany (Jackson, Mississippi) is undergoing medical treatment and is under doctor’s orders not to work. She has two daughters who live with her and attend school. She depends on food stamps to feed her girls, but she sometimes finds that the food stamps are depleted after two and a half weeks. “That’s when our cupboards become bare and there isn’t anything left in the deep freezer. I start to worry about where our next meal is coming from.” She feels regret that her circumstances do not allow her to provide properly for her children. Because of her own experience of hunger, she gets upset with people who take their meals for granted and waste food, a common occurrence in America. She advises children everywhere, “when your parents cook you a nice meal, try to eat everything on your plate, because there are people out there right now who would love to be in your position—like my children and me.”

John (Canton, Michigan) is a 10-year-old boy whose family depends on food stamps, which are far from adequate to feed the whole family. Sometimes his parents must forgo their own meals to ensure that their son eats. This makes him sad and he even refuses to eat unless his parents also eat. Before they got food stamps, he says, there were times “when I was so hungry that it hurt a little bit in my stomach and made me out of breath.” He used to get good grades in school, but after the family hit hard times, he would attend school hungry. In class he would always be thinking about food and could not concentrate on his lessons. As a result, his grades went down. His present school provides him with breakfast and lunch. He would like to get a paper route so he could bring home a check “because sometimes we have a little bit of trouble paying the rent and getting enough food.”

Marilyn is a senior citizen at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. She and her husband live on a fixed income from Social Security. She must use much of her income to buy medicines for her husband and herself, both of whom have health problems. This leaves very little money to buy food. “I’m not happy we have to give up nourishment for medicine,” she says, “but we have to do the best we can with the food we acquire…. It’s a sad situation when you don’t have the money to buy fresh food to cook up for your meal.” She pleads, “Whoever can help protect these programs, please do so, because while we are just two people, I know there are a whole lot of other people out there who are also hungry.”

John (Baton Rouge, Louisiana) has a wife and an 18-month-old daughter. He had a decent job and was paying his bills, but he was promised a job in Baton Rouge, which he decided to accept. The boss was supposed to pick him and his family up at the bus station and put them in an apartment until he got a few paychecks to cover his own housing. However, the boss did not show up at the bus station, and so the family became homeless. They entered homeless shelters: his wife and daughter in one shelter and he in another. They receive snack bags from the shelter but it’s mostly junk food, like M&Ms and Cheez-its. His daughter is refusing to eat. When she’s hungry she grabs her teddy bear and falls asleep in his lap. They’ve applied for food stamps and for work at different places, but nothing has come through. John has grown skeptical about the whole system: “I am starting to think that the system is designed to keep you down. It kills me to see my wife and daughter hungry. It didn’t take us long at all to get left at a bus station, but it is going to take a while to get back to where we were—happy.”

Rhonda (Zion City, Louisiana) would like to go to college and study to become a nurse, but conditions at home have forced her to become a surrogate mother for her younger siblings. Her mother is a certified nurse and used to have a decent job, but a C-section led to medical problems and she’s not allowed to work. Her father lost his good-paying job and now works at a donut shop. Rhonda had to forgo college to help her parents, but she could not find a job after six months of searching, and thus six people live on one income: her parents, her younger brother and sister, her baby, and herself. Her mother’s medical bills sweep up a large portion of the family income, so they struggle to get enough to eat. The family lost their food stamps the last time her mother was in the hospital. Now they subsist on parcels of canned food and packs of noodles, which they obtain once a month from a food pantry. “That’s pretty much what we eat since we can’t afford fresh foods from the stores around here (they have really high prices).” To make sure that her younger brother and sister don’t go hungry, she enrolled them in school programs that provide low income students with breakfast and lunch.

2 responses to “The Face of Hunger in America

  1. ON a blog posting in Tricycle, magazine, there were some people writing in questioning whether there really were people going hungry in America. One writer callously suggested that being hungry helped motivate people to find work. These case studies, above, tell us in real terms how hunger affects families in America. By the way, we’re on track to spend $4-6 Trillion (that’s with a T) on the Iraq and Afghan wars.

  2. I hope all those Congress people who want to cut food stamps and all those people who are poor-hating can read these stories or the whole report. I know they won’t but just maybe if they did they could find a bit of compassion in their rich stingy hearts.