No person should go hungry, period. When it is a child, it is even more heartbreaking. Here in the U.S., 50 million people don’t have enough to eat. 16 million of them are children: that’s 1 in 4 kids who don’t know where their next meal will come from. I’m honored to donate this post as part of Food Bloggers Against Hunger; my hope with today’s action is that we will raise awareness about food insecurity and hunger in the United States, while sharing some ideas about what you can do to help.
“The reason people are going hungry is not because of a shortage of food; it is because of poverty.” ~ Raj Patel
I wasn’t ever hungry as a child. But when I was very young my family had a certain degree of food insecurity – though it wasn’t until I was much older that I really knew that, or understood what it meant. My mom and dad both grew up in comfort and relative affluence, the children of stay-home-moms and fathers who were a high ranking executive (mom) and a neurosurgeon (dad). As parents though, they embraced lives of activism, academics, and a degree of intentional poverty. But they split up when I was four and things got tighter: my dad spent a year not eating anything on Tuesdays. It was one of the days we were with my mom, and my dad saw his weekly fasting was a way to balance our bare-bones food budget. Tuesday was a teaching day for him and his one shot at a meal was when, occasionally, students would invite him out for a burrito after class. Even today, his eyes light up and he laughs when he gets to the burrito part of that story. When you are hungry, food takes on a different sort of resonance: I think it is one that stays with you. We were never hungry as children – but hunger lurked sometimes, right on our doorstep.
So hunger lurked, and I remember walking with my mom and Dan down a long busy stretch of San Pablo avenue, to an office where she applied for WIC benefits. I didn’t know much about WIC (the supplemental food program for Women, Infants and Children) but I was pretty sure it was welfare, and I was pretty sure we didn’t need it. But Mom was pregnant, and while she had a graduate degree and always worked full time, she wanted to take time off to be with the new baby when he (or she – we didn’t know yet) arrived.
Her monthly budget back then was impossibly tight. When she died, we found hundreds, hundreds, of scraps of paper tucked into her journals from the time: each one was covered in numbers, a mini record of crisis, a financial equation that wouldn’t turn out right. In her pretty round handwriting she weighed Christmas presents against groceries against the electric bill, her careful documentation showing the $3 lattes she loved from the French Hotel, the $7 of gas she had to allocate for the month (“might walk to work next week?”), the $12 she borrowed to buy training pants and a little potty for Daniel (thank you Carol Bowen!).
Careful planning and WIC were what allowed her to spend three, almost four months at home with Gabe once he was born. She still worked Saturdays, but she didn’t have to leave the new baby right away as she had feared. She grew vegetables in the garden and shopped at the Farmer’s Market, but WIC meant we had milk, eggs, butter, and cheese. It meant cereal (even sugar cereal! Not that we could convince her on that – ) and it even meant juice, a rare treat.
So for our family, for our mom and for us and for our new baby brother, WIC was a lifesaver. But Dan and I didn’t feel that way. What we do remember feeling: shame. There was shame in using the vouchers in the grocery store (Dan) and in hearing people talk about ‘Welfare Queens’ at school (me). Remnants of this shame linger: when I went to my current grocery store last week and asked a manager there about their policies around food stamps, I felt urgently the need to explain that it was research, for something I was writing – not because I actually needed foodstamps. There is no reason for this shame, objectively I totally get and champion that fact – but still. There it was.
I can say that hunger is what is shameful, not poverty, not doing whatever you can to feed your family. I can hope that my mom and my dad felt good about what they were doing, feeding us the best ways they knew how. And today, I can offer these stories in the hopes that people reading them will say, It can happen to anyone, and everyone. And no one should have to be hungry.
Because no, I wasn’t ever hungry as a child. But I ate sometimes from the safety net.
A Place at the Table, a new documentary that shares the stories of three food-insecure families, brings home the story of hunger (and poverty, and the brokenness of our food system) in a way that is real and accessible. I don’t push much on you good people, but I really want to push you to watch this one. Industrialized agriculture, real food, our ever-present omnivore’s dilemma: at the heart of all this talk about what we eat, there is an assumption that we have choices, that we have access, that we are not actually hungry in the midst of so much.
Everyone should have those choices, that access. No one should be hungry. Seeing people who are hungry, children who are begging their moms for food when there is none to be had – it will break your heart, yes. It broke mine. But it will galvanize you. It will inspire you. It will remind you that food, at its most basic, is meant to ease hunger. Real hunger.
Lest we doubt that hunger is really about poverty (and subsidies, but I’ll save that for another post): the federal government tells me that if I am ‘thrifty’ I can feed my family of four on $553.40 a month. (Figure out your ‘thrifty’ budget here.) If my family was on SNAP (foodstamps) we would have about $508 a month (the average benefit for a family of four as calculated here.)
I’m embarassed to tell you how much more than that we usually spend – despite most of our produce dollars stretching by going farmer-direct at the markets and through our CSA. But in an effort to see what it would be like, I decided to try a single dinner: $508/4 is $127 (let’s say it’s February and we have a four-week month). $127/7 is $18.14 per day. In the real world, we could use this up at breakfast – coffee and tea (with cream), buttered whole grain toast, homemade granola, yogurt … waffles and fresh fruit for the kids … or maybe eggs and potatoes if they’re feeling savory. But if we spend $4 on breakfast (toast from homemade bread plus one egg each) and $4 on lunch (for four … hm. Tuna? Though Kyle doesn’t like tuna …I guess we can go peanut butter?) then we have $10 left over for dinner. Here we go.
Whole wheat pasta (organic, $2 for the bag) with frozen broccoli (organic, $3 for the bag) is a good start. I love it with feta – but at $5/container, that would finish us. Maybe chicken instead? I can get about 3/4 of a pound of organic chicken thighs, or I could sacrifice my beliefs and get a larger amount of conventional chicken. Either way we’re left without much veg – and our usual green salad is way out of reach (greens, a handful of crunchy carrots and radishes, olive oil and vinegar – that could easily be more than our total $10). Frozen peas we could afford, though it’s not exactly a meal – and if we get them, we’re down to half a pound of chicken. Maybe we could add nuts instead of meat for protein? The $3 jar of peanuts is from all the way across the world and is overly salty for our tastes. Maybe we go for the peanut butter in our pantry, and make a simple peanut sauce … but then what will we have for lunch tomorrow?
I ended up serving pasta with broccoli and feta. I also gave the kids some leftover red sauce from the fridge, and promised myself they would eat more vegetables tomorrow.
I have the luxury of that promise.
For the 50 million people in the U.S. who don’t have that luxury, for the one in four (!) children who are hungry and for their parents, I feel empathy. I cannot imagine seeing my children struggle with all the daily trials of childhood on an empty belly. Their longterm health, their brain development, their educational success and their immune systems – there is so much that has been shown to be directly tied to how we feed our kids. To think that we, in a country with so much, cannot get this right for our most vulnerable citizens- it is infuriating. Nutritious, affordable food should be a right, not a privilege.
No one should be hungry as a child.
So what can we do?
1. Send a letter to congress asking them to support critical anti-hunger legislation. This takes less than thirty seconds, but is a great way to make your voice heard as part of a collective action to help end hunger in the United States.
2. Watch A Place at the Table – and tell your friends to watch it too! There might be a screening in your city – or view it like I did, on-demand through iTunes or Amazon. By sharing the stories of three families struggling with food insecurity, A Place at the Table puts a human face on a problem that is so often invisible.
3. Take action in your community. Hunger is a complex puzzle, involving pieces as varied as crop subsidies and food stamps, lobbyists and poverty: the good news is that because it is so complex, there are lots of areas where you can make a difference. A good place to start is The Food Research and Action Center, which offers a list of anti-hunger agencies divided by state. Volunteering at a food bank, grocery shopping for SNAP-dependent elderly people, or calling your local congressperson in support of anti-hunger initiatives are all important roles in the fight against hunger.
4. Don’t forget to send that letter to congress! Less than thirty seconds of your time, to help vulnerable children who don’t have enough to eat. On their behalf, and on behalf of all the people who love them and want so much to feed them well – thank you.
When I tasted these Atta biscuits (purportedly an Indian road-side food, undoubtedly delicious) last week, I was transported instantly back to childhood. My mom would make “cookies” with us, using whole wheat flour and almost no sugar and a bit of butter and milk. Sometimes we had to drink powdered milk, at both my houses – but these little treats made even that taste okay. So while I had planned to share a recipe for pasta with broccoli and feta (that being the recipe), I decided to share these instead. These are a simple treat for a child or a mom, good with tea or to munch after school. They rely on small amounts of pantry staples, little bits of things that you might have around even in lean times. An oven and a cookie sheet and a bowl for mixing in are all the equipment you really need – and about thirty minutes to get you from hunger to happiness.
Crunchy, dry, not too sweet at all – these are perfect for dunking in tea or coffee or a special-treat latte. A handful in a lunchbox would be appreciated, and as a midafternoon snack they are fortifying while still leaving room for dinner. They have a wonderful wheaty crispness, a sparkly sweet-crunch of sugar, and a flavor that brings little hands coming back to the cooling rack over and over again – but it won’t be too upsetting to parents worried about spoiled appetites, even if those little fingers make off with the whole batch.
They smell good, they taste even better, and best of all they let you feel proud of what you have made. My kids can’t stop eating them – thus far each batch has disappeared, in little bites and crunches, before I got it into a cookie jar.
And I am thankful, so thankful, that they have all they want to eat.
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 generous tablespoons raw sugar (or 3 if you want it sweeter)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small pieces
Generous 1/4 cup whole milk (if using low-fat powdered milk, mix it double strength)
Preheat your oven to 425 F, with a rack in the upper third. Line a baking sheet with parchment. (If you don’t have parchment, you can use an ungreased baking sheet.)
In a mixing bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt with a fork or your fingers. Add the butter, and cut it in with a pastry blender, fork, or fingers until you have an even crumbliness (no large flakes or peas of butter remaining). Add the milk a tablespoon at a time and stir in gently with a fork, using just enough milk to moisten your dough to the point of sticking together. Once it starts to come away from the edges of the bowl, press it into a ball and turn it out onto a work surface (it needn’t be floured).
Roll or pat the dough to a 6-by-8 inch rectangle, keeping the edges as straight as possible. Cut it into 24 little rectangles (each will be approximately 1×1 1/2 inches) and press each rectangle with the tines of a fork to make lines.
Transfer to your parchment-lined baking sheet (the don’t spread and won’t need much space between) and bake for 15 minutes, or until slightly puffed and golden brown.
Let them cool and crisp on a rack for at least five minutes before eating. (If you don’t have a rack, remove them from the pan and let cool for a few minutes, then flip them and let them finish cooling and crisping.)
I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies; education and culture for their minds; and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
For now I ask no more/Than the justice of eating. ~ Pablo Neruda