Hungry for change

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.” 

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  1. there’s no borderline immoral about it. It’s flat out wrong. As my favorite candidate says, it’s WRONG for us to have 35 million Americans living in poverty in the richest nation in the history of the planet. It’s WRONG, WRONG, WRONG, and we MUST fix it.

        • I share your opinion, so I backed away from the hedge word I’d used. And I too thought of Edwards when I was posting this. I’m not sure yet who I’ll support in the election, but I like what he has to say about eliminating the divide (chasm!) between the haves and have-nots.

          Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family! I’m blessed by your friendship.

  2. I’ve had my share of that world… Thank God for my parents! When we had a food card, my husband worked full time, but didn’t make (nor does he now, really) enough money. We qualified for a food card, and I gladly accepted it. At first, it gave us $80.00 a week for food for our family of four. But that quickly diminished to only $140.00 for the whole month! And then when my husband received a measly raise, there went the last of the food card. No wonder some folks never work! It pays more NOT to–isn’t that shameful, too? Of course it is. We didn’t need a handout, just help. Again, I thank the Lord for my folks! Stupid government….

    • You and Doc are right about that word. I shouldn’t have hedged in writing that sentence. There, I fixed it.

      I remember eating so much gov’ment cheese I, er, clogged the plumbing for days. When we got those big blocks of cheese, we were like rats at a rat-trap…couldn’t get enough.

      Happy Thanksgiving, Carrie. My life is richer for the blessing of your friendship.

  3. WOW.

    Couldn’t agree more girl and these glimps’s into your past fascinate me.

    I was a hungry little girl too for different reasons, but hungry all the same and I understand that ache to dissapear so normal people wouldn’t judge me. At one point, my sister, brother and I would break into stranger’s homes and steal their food. We got really sick once from eating dog-pills and another time for gorging on a 20lb drum of raw cashews becasue we were so hungry.

    When people who don’t know what it’s like to walk a mile in a hungry person’s shoes take up the judging and the law making it angers me SO MUCH I CANT SEE STRAIGHT!!!

    Good for you for writing this post and for standing up for them.

    • You, too, Rhona? I’m so, so sorry to hear that you suffered some of these same indignities and painful experiences. ((HUGS))

      I yearn deep down in my soul for the ability to make a difference.

      I’m grateful that we’ve connected; I truly feel we were/are meant to know one another, for some purpose greater than our individual selves.

  4. It is shameful, and will probably only get worse as the ‘haves’ quickly entrench themselves against the ‘have-nots’ in a scary economy. Compassion insecurity sounds an awful lot like compassion fatigue, something we’re already seeing. Isaw a news segment just last night about a local shelter expecting to feed nearly 40,000 people tomorrow and were frantic for food donations. I was appalled.

    • Compassion fatigue…I think you’re right. We’re numbed to our feelings by the media, which sucks us into insignificant stories and dries up our emotional energies. Britney, Lindsey, Paris, etc…who has time to think about the poor when we’re worried about our pop icons?

      Thank you, THANK YOU for caring. Each of us makes a difference.

      Happy Thanksgiving.

  5. My husband and I were just talking about the situation in the American government this morning.

    He made the comment, “can you imagine the social programs and healthcare there would be if they didn’t spend the trillions they do on defence?”

    Priorities. Sigh. Obviously it doesn’t look like it’s getting any better.

    • I so agree with you. Imagine what $8 billion dollars would feed, the vast numbers of people we’d be able to clothe, house, and offer health care.

      Our priorities are upside-down.

      I count you among the many blessings for which I’m grateful, today and always.

  6. I think you’re exactly right about our culture . . . “compassion insecurity” labels us perfectly. There’s a lot wrapped into that too. People don’t have time to be compassionate. We don’t get into their community enough to know that people need compassion. We think someone else is taking care of it (which is one reason creating more social systems will only make the character of our nation worse, though it might feed some of the hungry). We want to buy a new HDTV, and feeding the poor would get in the way of that.

    Thanks for making us aware, once again, that what we do is more important than what we say.

    • We don’t have time because we don’t choose to spend our time that way. We don’t have resources to help the hungry (sick, homeless, weary…) because we don’t choose to spend our dollars that way.

      Who will wake us up from our emotional slumber before it’s too late?

      Happy Thanksgiving, Jonathan. I’m always grateful for your thoughtful posts and comments.

  7. A fairly large percentage of the kids in our elementary school get free lunch and I think I can say our teachers are more compassionate than yours were. I’m so sorry you had those angry teachers.

    Thanks for reminding me to be grateful for my childhood, which had its own share of downs, but at least we had food.

    • I believe most teachers operated in good faith, with good hearts. I also realize they were trained to protect and defend the rules of the institution, which sometimes blinded them to the injustices and indignities playing out in front of them.

      I’m thankful for your friendship and all I learn from reading about your writing journey. Happy Thanksgiving!

  8. We should give to the less fortunate…except, let’s avoid the man on the corner looking for a handout. He’s just going to waste the money on drugs, anyway.

    We should donate to the needy…but let’s make sure they KNOW they’re needy, and how dependent they are on us. Let’s give them dirty looks when they pay for their food with stamps or WIC.

    Let’s make sure every kid has health care…except, not those kids of parents who are losers anyway, who don’t want to work (because the poor never do want to change their situation–they must like it like that).

    At one point my husband and I–both of us with college degrees–were on WIC and medicaid. He was working three jobs. There wasn’t a job in the area that would pay enough to cover day care for me to work as well. I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end, and I also have a visceral reaction when people (individuals and politicians alike) who have never been hungry or medically desperate in their lives try to justify why they in theory believe in helping the poor, but not in reality.

    • Beautifully written. In so many ways, we find ways to justify our inaction or lack of compassion. Most of those narratives are myths.

      I’m sorry you and your husband suffered those difficult times. I’m grateful, though, that your experiences taught you (or reinforced) compassion for those who are going through similar circumstances.

      I hope you have a happy Thanksgiving! 🙂

  9. Oh, Melodye…my heart breaks for the little girl you once were. Being hungry like that…it’s not right. With all the abundance and resources there are on this planet, there shouldn’t be anyone going hungry–anywhere.

    What makes me sick is all the food that is wasted. I mean, even just the size of restaurant servings is ridiculous. The problem is not just the government, it’s our complete way of life. Our cultures are so screwed up–more and more people are starving, and at the other extreme, more and more people are becoming obese.

    And, the most frustrating thing about it is that many of us who actually do give a damn don’t know what to do to help make a difference.

    • *wanted to add: You can only give and donate so much, ya know? But even in giving, it’s only a temporary fix–it’s not a solution. What IS the solution?

      • It’s heart-breaking, isn’t it?

        I think we can do a lot of short-term good by donating time/money/resources to programs that serve those less fortunate than ourselves. In the long run, though, we need to work toward change by identifying and actively supporting candidates who will be genuine agents of change.

        Happy Thankgiving!!! I am grateful for your open heart and generous spirit.

        • You are definitely right. We also have to keep the faith and believe that change is in the process of happening.

          Happy Thankgiving!!! I am grateful for your open heart and generous spirit.

          Thanks, Melodye, and right back atch’ya! And, I am also grateful for YOU! *wink*

  10. But I worry this callous terminology is symptomatic of a larger, perhaps more dangerous malady: compassion “insecurity.”

    I fear that you’re right. And I also find it disgusting that we’re trying to push this under the rug instead of addressing it head-on and fixing the problem. I’m convinced that there’s a way to end hunger in the US–we have so much money as both the government and private citizens that it should be a (relatively) easy fix.

    Until that day, supporting local food donation organizations/food pantries are a simple start that can make a difference in a child’s–or adult’s–life.

    • I so agree with you. We’re mismanaging all our resources — physical, emotional, spiritual. I think it’s important to identify agents of true change and support their candidacy for office. But for today and in the meantime, we can make a difference by donating time/money/resources to programs that serve the less fortunate. Thank you, Erin, for posting that idea to your blog.

      This Thanksgiving — every day — I’m so grateful for your friendship.

  11. It’s often bothered me too — though my frustration was more with the religious establishments (because that’s what I saw and experienced firsthand) who sent missionaries out to the foreign countries and ignored their own neighborhood because, imo, it wasn’t as glamorous.

    And yet, when is the last time I gave to one of the many food charities out there? It’s been too long. Thank you for the reminder, melodye!

    • Supporting causes abroad is made to appear more important than tending to the problems on our front porch. Bottom-line, someone’s doing the marketing that makes us believe that’s so. Somehow, we’ve got to help people understand that we are responsible for our all neighbors, at home and abroad.

      I’m so grateful for your open heart and generous spirit, Robin. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your lovely family.

  12. I agree with you on this. It is so sad. I’ve live in one country where hunger was a huge problem and I saw children digging in garbage for food. We always separated our garbage so they wouldn’t get dirty. Any clothes went in a separate bag. Food scraps in another. Other garbage in another. We made it as easy as possible. We helped people when we could.

    We have lived in 2 other countries that have a different government system than the US. No one goes hungry in these countries! The people are taken care of. Although not everything is perfect in these countries I have NEVER seen a homeless person. I have never seen poverty, even though some people have less. I believe everyone has enough to eat.

    I wished that all who lived in the US had enough to eat.This is one of those topics that get me upset, because it seems almost no effort is made by those who could make a big difference. I do realize that numerous organizations and individuals do much to alleviate hunger, but it is still there.

    My family fasts one day a month and uses the money that we would have spent on donations that help those who don’t have enough to eat.
    We have never gone hungry, but there were times we barely made it and went without decent food.
    Health care is another big issue.

    I really hope a true long-run solution is found!!!

    • Thank you, Sarah, for sharing your experiences. There are many, many positive things about our country (and its citizens), but the huge chasm that exists between the haves and have-nots makes me feel ashamed.

      • The US is a wonderful country. I miss living there. (Someday I’ll get to live in, versus visit home.) No place or person is perfect. It is important that I try to be a better person every day. I also want to see our nation get better and it will as people try to help others and find ways to meet everyone’s needs. Hopefully someday there won’t be a huge chasm.

  13. I don’t understand how we have gotten to this place where priorities are so effed up. It has to change. It HAS to change. It makes me sick.

    You are an inspiration, Melodye. You really are.

    • You’re so right. It HAS to change. But to effect long-term and significan change, WE have to change. All of us, each of us. I wish I knew how to help make that happen.

      I’m grateful for your friendship, Lisa, today and always.

  14. That was an amazing, moving, personal post.

    I wish you would submit it for publication somewhere. The entire country should read this.

    I’m speechless. Thank you for sharing this.

    • Thank you for your kind words. I submitted it, but perhaps not to the right publications. But I sent it to my representatives, so that’s at least a start.

      I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving, blessed by good food and lots of love.

  15. Melodye.

    I’m so thankful you’re here.

    I always appreciate your eloquent, controlled, devastating posts. I remember the first time I heard the phrase “food insecurity” – I was sickened. Call hunger what it is, you talking heads!

    It’s no wonder that other countries – even those that once supported and admired us – now look upon us with disgust.

    • We need to get back to the basic tenets and principles upon which our country was first formed. WE the people, not WE, the haves and YOU, the have-nots.

      You’ve blessed me so much with your very kind words. Even more, you bless me every day by being my friend. I’m grateful.

  16. Isn’t it maddening how detached we are from our own real issues at home? The rationalizing, myth-making, and denial by society and those in positions of power – I can’t stand it.

    The reactions of teachers and students, with disgust and teasing…those are the hardest memories. My siblings and I talk about how we now make up now as adults for the lack of clothes and food growing up. That’s a scar that’s still there – and each of us have our own way of dealing with it.

    And M., I really appreciate your perspective and wisdom regarding something so painful.

    • (((LAURA)))You understand…I know that, and I’m sorry for all that means. The wounds still ache, don’t they, after all these years? I find it healing to help make things better for my family, my community, my world. And also, by connecting with warm-hearted people like you.

      Happy Thanksgiving, dear friend.

  17. The number of Americans who go hungry is staggering — one in ten! Ten percent! That means each one of us is very likely to know several people who are doing without — whether they’re hiding that fact or not.

    I do believe the answer lies within each of us. We have to get involved on a daily basis, serving at soup kitchens and donating what we can. And we have to be more intelligent and discriminate about the candidates we select for public office. We *must* support those who actively work toward change, not just those who offer up pretty promises.

    While I’m humbled that you shared my story with your daughters, I’m also glad to know they’ve not personally suffered the same experiences.

  18. (((HUGS))) Thank you for sharing, Melody. I’m so sorry that you went through that and yes, the scares stay with you no matter how old one gets. As a child I always had enough to eat, but had other issues just as damaging to deal with. And both my husband (who was a blue-collar worker) and I have gone to bed hungry, more than once, so our children would have enough to eat.

    I’m a Vermonter and I call it like I see it. HUNGER is HUNGER not some glossed over ”it doesn’t apply to me so I won’t think about it” category. ‘Food insecurity,’ what kind of bullsh** is that? Hunger is not pretty, nor should it be made politically correct for the idiots who are running this country. That’s is gobble speak.

    It’s not just the homeless or those that people used to say were living off the so-called welfare wagon that are hungry. It’s working men and women as well as our senior citizens.

    I work in our local food shelf and its men and women who are working 2 and sometimes 3 jobs (at minimum wage) that come in for what little we can offer them. But what is really heartbreaking are seeing the senior citizens come in. People who have worked all their lives, paid their taxes, and now find that Social Security just doesn’t do it. When it’s a choice between paying for their medicine and/or paying their heating bills and eatng…eating takes a back seat

    Our food shelf is stretched to the limit as there are more people who need food than what we can supply so last month we had to institute a policy of allowing a person only two visits a month, and the food shelf is now closed one afternoon a week.

    What in he** happened AMERICA? Why are we not taking care of our own first?

    What do we have to do…have a Live Aid concert for America in order to make it connect with everyone? One in ten people in this country are HUNGRY. It’s your neighbor, your boss, your brother, your sister, your mother, your father. And those of you who are not facing hunger today, are only two paychecks away from being in the same boat.

    This whole issue makes me sooo spittin’ mad, as HUNGER is a vicious cycle that affects every part of one’s life.

    It’s not just IMMORAL, it’s INHUMANE! There are starving people in this country and yet what does our government do? Cut services to those in need and sell most of our grain etc overseas. It’s not only WRONG, it’s DISGUSTING! I guess tha name of the game is to mismanage all of our resources and then turn a blind eye to those in need. Doesn’t it ring a little too much like ‘let them eat cake’?

    The answer is just not changing political parties, although that would certainly be a step in the right direction. As far as I’m concerned the current bozo’s … well, they all are just giving lip service in order to be elected.

    We need a change from the ground up. A third party whose candidates will NOT be swayed by the fat cats and multi-national conglomerates. A party where ‘For the People’ actually means for something!

    And I’m sorry to say this, but religion won’t help either. Wasn’t it ‘Shrub’ who was going to be the so-called ‘compassionate conservative ’president? Un huh … righ! We’ve seen what that amounted too…more people hungry than ever before, more people working their fingers to the bone and falling farther and farther behind.

  19. I can’t even begin to tell you how reading this made me feel. Profound sadness and anger don’t even begin to cover it. It angers me to no end that the government actually subsidizes farmers to not grow crops when so many people in this country are starving. It’s sickening to me.

    Thank you for sharing your story, Melodye. And I’m so glad that you’ve overcome your beginnings. *hugs*

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