During our second year of marriage in 1997, my wife and I were often hungry. We lived in a one-room apartment in the back of a garage in the middle of nowhere. We had no money. Our car was reposessed in the winter. Just before that, I lost a job doing in-home teaching because we didn’t have gas money. I was working about 25 hours a week at the local Dunkin’ Donuts, and we were relying on our local food shelf to provide us with the bulk of our meals. Any money we did have went towards what bills we could pay, but more often towards some quick-fix happiness like fast food or books or music: anything to distract us from our seemingly interminable reality. We didn’t know any drug dealers, or we might have spent money on that.
We survived that 18 months or so without ever becoming truly homeless, though I think we still owe some rent. We were lost and confused. Cold even in the summer. Abandoned by the world. Angry, depressed, and scared. We did live clean, and we did work hard, but all of that would have been for nought if we hadn’t been lucky enough to live in Vermont, and have family close by who could provide shelter and food when we needed it.
We did not have a Thanksgiving meal that year. I think we ate bearclaws or something from Dunkin’. But the thing is, we were also unable to have supper the night before or the night after. We ate what was available at the food shelf or the day-old pastries I brought home from work. The only reason we remember our absense of food on that particular Thursday in that particular November was because it was a holiday. In truth, it was no different for us than any other day that week. Had we been the recipients of a food basket or something on that day, it would have made us happy, but it would not have solved our problem. Charity is not enough to solve the problem of hunger.
During the holidays, we all become especially sensitive to the needs of others. We focus more deeply — if for an infintesimally brief amount of time — on the homeless, the marginalized, the hungry, the poor. We give money at our local grocery stores or buy the gift bags in $10 increments. Celebrities drive truckloads of food to their old stomping grounds. Some of us might volunteer at homeless shelters, food shelves, or work with the local Kiwanis putting together food baskets. Whatever the activity, we do it because it feels good, because it provides a moment of happiness in somebody’s life, and we do it because it’s the right thing to do. We do it because it becomes more clear during our own moments of abundance that there are far too many people who go without.
According to Feeding America, in 2014 48.1 million people in the United States lived in food insecure households. That number includes 15.3 million children. If you’re keeping track of the math, that means that 14% of Americans can’t guarantee that they or their family can eat today, and a third of those affected are children. Shockingly, this number is higher than it was a decade ago, according to the USDA.
Also according to the USDA, 31% of post-harvest food went uneaten in 2010. And just two years ago, the United States ranked second worst regarding child poverty in a survey of 35 of developed nations. Meanwhile, the international statistics for hunger and poverty are increasing. Food development and nutrition are improving on a global scale. In spite of this good news, however, there are many countries where hunger is getting worse, and the United States seems to be one of them.
Clearly, there is a problem with hunger in the United States. Even if you don’t want to look at the numbers, logic should make it clear: charity continues to be needed in spite of it having been tackling hunger for decades. The truth is that charity continues to be needed because hunger is not something we can solve by giving people food. Hunger is a systemic, symptomatic issue of a more deeply entrenched problem. People don’t need to be given food. People need to be given the means to access food. The same methods that are used in developing nations that allow people to conquer hunger should also be used here. We don’t do it, though, because we are blind to the problem, and we believe that hard work and persistence can solve any problem.
This is not about self-sufficiency or lack of a work ethic. I think we’ve reached the point in history where we can begin to say that hard work does not guarantee success. Someone working two minimum wage jobs for a total of 50 hours a week does not lack a work ethic. Let’s be honest, here. In our current system, success is only possible for those born into a position where it can be achieved. My wife and I are examples of this. In reality, luck, geography, and salary play far larger roles in our success than hard work does, and the same goes for access to food.
The cost, availability, and quality of food is based entirely on where one lives in the United States. In Mississippi, the food insecurity rate is 22%. Two-tenths of the population of Mississippi isn’t sure where their next meal is going to come from. Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Texas, Ohio, Alabama, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Maine, Oregon, and Kansas round out the list of the 14 states that are more food insecure than the national average. Additionally, there is absolutely no county in the U.S. where the minimum wage is the same or greater than a required living wage. Just last month, the average cost of food for a family of four was approximately $1,070.00 (USDA). That’s about two weeks worth of work for someone being paid an average of $9 – $10 an hour. Once you start factoring in housing, transportation, health insurance, clothing, utilities, and entertainment, the struggle becomes clear: food is expensive.
Access to food for most people in the United States is dependent on being able to afford it. We have long since stopped being an agrarian society, and most Americans depend on some means of distribution for their food, and that’s where the problem is. If there is so much food that 31% of it is being thrown out, but there are still people in the country who are hungry, then there are at least two ways of fixing the problem. First, minimum wage must be fixed to a rising cost of living. If a family of four needs $22 an hour to live, then that family has to earn $22 an hour. As the cost of living increases, the wages should increase. If the cost of living goes down, wages should stay static. Second, we need broader access to food beyond what top-down economics or charity can provide. I believe we have to focus on this in order to create long-term, sustainable solutions to hunger.
We must begin looking at ways of ensuring people will always have food. We should support and nurture neighborhood gardens and co-ops. We should allow people to grow food and have a few animals in the suburbs. Some communities have enacted local currencies and barter systems. We need to de-industrialize farming and be more diverse with the crops we grow. We need to spend money on infrastructure and moving towards more sustainable transportation methods, the costs of food distribution will go down. We need to bring food selling back to the centers of communities and away from the big box stores. We need to get violence out of our communities. And while we do this, we need to continue to be charitable.
Food is not a commodity. It is a necessity. Perhaps the most necessary one. If we can work with other countries to help devise systems of food growth and management, then surely we can do the same here. Access to food should no longer be dependent on whether someone was lucky enough to be born in a particular location at a certain time. Access to food should be an implicit right of being born, period.
What I’m saying is that during this holiday season — this one right now — let’s stop thinking about just giving $1, $5, or $10 at the grocery store and start thinking about what we can change to ensure that those donations are no longer necessary. Again, this is not about people lifting themselves up by their bootstraps, or self-sufficiency, or spending more on social safety nets. This is about changing the very nature of a system that causes the problem so that bootstraps and safety nets become obsolete and nobody will need to live hungry again.