One in seven Americans experiences some sort of food insecurity. One in five children experiences hunger. And we’re not talking that hunger that means, “I need a snack after school.” We’re talking hunger because there’s nothing in the cupboard. Hunger where your free school lunch and breakfast might be the only well-rounded meals you get all day, because your parents (despite their best efforts) can’t afford food and medicine. Or food and gas money. Or food and rent. Or some other combination of all of those things.
A few months ago, a principal at one of the poorest elementary schools in Dallas related that during last winter’s snow days, he worried about his kids who relied on school lunches and breakfasts for nourishment. He knew they were likely sitting in cold homes, hunger gnawing at their tiny bellies. While the rest of us may have kvetched about entertaining cabin-fevered children, he was worrying about what was going in his kids’ stomachs.
As part of Hunger Action Month (which is this month), many are taking the SNAP challenge – living on about $4 and change every day for a week – as a way to both bring awareness to the issue of food insecurity and to try to get a better understanding of what it is like to try to work, learn and just live with so little food.
I will not be taking the SNAP challenge.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not bowing out because I don’t care, or because I’m hard-hearted. I’m not doing the SNAP challenge because I lived the SNAP challenge for much of my pre-teen and teen life. I was one of those food-insecure children.
When my parents divorced, my mother had a high-school education and a 10-year absence from the workforce. The jobs she got to supplement the infrequent and miniscule child support my father sent to provide for my siblings and me were paying minimum wage at best. There was never enough money for everything. My pants were too short, my shoes rubbed my toes and my hair smelled the same as the rest of my body because it was washed with off-brand Ivory soap, too. My coat was bought on clearance at Goodwill two summers ago, and I began wearing it when it was too big, and now it was too small.
I skulked to the back door of the cafeteria once a week to quietly as possible grab my free lunch card from the cafeteria manager, hoping nobody saw. I got in line last at lunch so hopefully nobody would notice when I offered it to be punched.
My breakfast was generally an apple, which could be bought cheaply and in bulk, and a small glass of milk (until my youngest brother aged out of WIC, then it was water). Dinner was where my mother had to work her magic, but it was still mostly a rotation of potato soup, beans and cornbread, and chicken noodle soup.
She bought chicken legs, which are pretty much the cheapest cut of meat you can buy. But we didn’t eat chicken dinners. Instead, we baked them, tore off the meat, roasted the bones, and then cooked them in water to make broth. The meat was frozen and used in chicken soup, where it could be stretched farther. The broth was used to flavor potato soup. The contents of canned vegetables were carefully divided so that we would each get two or three slices of carrot, two or three green beans, and a couple of spoonfuls of corn in each bowl of soup.
You only got one serving. Period. With water to drink. If there was a pizza party at school where everyone brings $2, we were absent that day. And when summer it, it was the cheapest peanut butter on the whitest, cheapest bread you could buy, and even more meager portions at dinner, since the food budget didn’t get bigger just because we were home all day.
I say all of this not for pity, but to try to explain just how yawning this hunger is. It’s not just feeling a bit peckish between breakfast and lunch. It’s not that mild grumble from you stomach as you hit the alarm in the morning. It’s hunger so deep that when a classmate brings cupcakes for her birthday, you eat yours as slowly as possible because it may be months before you taste anything like it again. It’s hunger so great that despite beans and cornbread and chicken soup and potato soup, your mother pays for $5 of gas at a time with the pennies she rummaged for through her purse and the house It’s hunger so vast that you and your siblings walk silently behind your mother at the grocery store, knowing it does no good (and only makes your mother cry) to ask for even the smallest of treats. Your grocery cart, without fail, contains three pounds of pinto beans, one small bag of cornmeal, one small bag of flour, whatever chicken legs are on manager’s special, a big bag of potatoes, one bag of apples, cheap elbow noodles and two cans each of carrots, green beans and corn – to feed five people for a week.
So please, yes, do the SNAP challenge. It’s an eye-opening experience. But also remember it’s your immense privilege to, at the end of the week, go back to spending whatever you normally spend on food. That even during this week of voluntary deprivation, you aren’t worrying how you’ll pay for your diabetes medication or your electric bill, or whether you have gas money to get to work.
Remember this please, and engage in an honest dialogue about what you can do about hunger in your city. Because with odds like 1 in 5 and 1 in 7, chances are the hunger is a lot closer than you think.