I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family.
George W. Bush
According to statistics released this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of Americans who are not able to afford the food they need has increased yet again, as it has for the last six of seven years. An estimated – an unfathomable – 35.5 million American citizens live in the land of plenty without adequate food. This updated post puts a face on the USDA’s impersonal report.
Typically, words are a bridge to understanding – a way to connect people with real and abstract ideas. But occasionally, words serve as a means of distancing ourselves from realities we don’t want to face.
In 2006, the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided that “very low food insecurity” is a “more scientifically palatable description” for the 35.5 million Americans who struggle to put food on their tables. When I first read the term, I had a gut-wrenching, visceral reaction. I still do.
I’m appalled that the Senate recently side-stepped the opportunity to increase funding for programs that directly address hunger issues in America. I’m sick to my stomach after reading that homeless people are being bribed with food to support a controversial ballot intitiative. And I’m deeply ashamed that our country, one blessed by abundance, hides the face of hunger behind a euphemism.
As one of many children born into an impoverished household, I was always hungry. No abstractions can ever describe the very real panic I felt as my siblings and I rummaged through the pantry, day after day, desperately hoping that we’d overlooked some morsel of food. Nor can I fully explain the abject despair we felt when we realized that the cupboard was, again and almost always, bare.
I’ve eaten my share of subsidized food. While other little girls gorged on M&Ms, popcorn, and pizza at pajama parties, my family and I groveled at restaurants for scraps. I tried to make myself invisible when the grocery clerk and other customers shot disparaging looks at the food stamp coupons I clutched in my small hands. (My mother handed over the responsibilities for grocery shopping to us girls when she became too mortified to do it herself.) I ate bulgur and other government surplus that would cause most people to turn away in disgust. I stood in line for free dairy products – and became the brunt of jokes about ghetto-dwellers who got by on “gub’ment cheese.” But hey, when hunger’s gnawing away at your insides, you’ll eat almost anything that sticks to your ribs.
I was the small child who went to school with dangerously high fevers and contagious diseases like the measles, facing the wrath of angry teachers who publicly scolded me for daring to be there. When you’re sick and in need of nourishment, humiliation’s a price you’re willing to pay to participate in the free lunch program.
I am no stranger to hunger. It’s a chasm in your belly that eats away at your spirit and, if you let it, it’ll also steal your soul. Fortunately, I managed to fight my way out of poverty, and my life’s now blessed with many riches, including the bounty of food in my cupboards. But when I read the USDA report, the hungry little girl who still lives inside my head wept.
I believe it’s
borderline immoral to impersonalize hunger this way. Perhaps some fat cats in Washington find job security in playing these semantic and partisan games. And maybe the term’s more palatable to those of us preparing yet another dish for our already heavy-laden Thanksgiving tables. But I worry this callous terminology is symptomatic of a larger, perhaps more dangerous malady: “compassion insecurity.”