What is hunger? How do we understand it?
By Kelsey Scherer
Hunger feels like a strange topic this time of year, doesn’t it? At a time of year when for many of us food is available in abundant – if not excessive – quantities, we can easily lose sight of the fact that this is not the case for all families in our community. Let’s take a moment to remember that today.
What do we even mean when we use the word “hunger?” Bread for the World, a leading international anti-hunger organization, astutely defines it this way: “hunger is a physical manifestation of poverty.” They are not talking about the occasional stomach grumble or the physiological symptom of skipping lunch because we’re too busy. They are talking about the kind of hunger that is the result of on-going need. For this kind of hunger, I prefer the more descriptive term “food insecurity.” Chronic food insecurity – which is defined as uncertain or unstable access to enough healthy food for three meals per day, seven days per week – is a nuanced and complicated issue, and it affects 14.5% of American households. That’s nearly 49 million Americans.
But what does food insecurity look like? How can we identify the people who are experiencing it? Food insecurity takes many forms, and affects different individuals and families in different and far-reaching ways. A participant in a recent focus group at Caritas, a food pantry providing critical assistance to Waco-area families, explained, “Hunger doesn’t really have a face. You can’t tell if someone is hungry by just looking at them.”
I couldn’t agree more. There is not a sound or appropriate way to physically assess whether a child or adult is experiencing food insecurity, and there is danger in thinking we can make an assessment of such a complicated issue with one sweeping glance. If we assume that hunger is only experienced by the homeless man we sometimes see downtown, we will fail to understand that it can also impact the single parent in the suburbs who struggles to pay her mortgage and to put a healthy dinner on the table every night, or the two parents who work a combined four jobs but just can’t make ends meet. Even within the small city of Waco, hunger can look different from block to block. To more fully understand how food insecurity is impacting our neighbors we must move beyond assumptions and stereotypes.
We don’t necessarily know who is hungry, why they are facing food insecurity, or even the best ways to help. With that in mind, it is critically important that we approach our neighbors with a posture of humility and grace when we seek to problem-solve. When poverty-fighters approach people facing food insecurity as teachers from whom we have much to learn and who are experts on their own problems – rather than as students who need teaching or reprimanding – we make progress. In so doing, we significantly increase the chances of ending poverty in life-giving, dignifying, collaborative, effective ways.
What so many of us who do community work (myself included) often miss as we seek to attack the complex problems associated with poverty are the real perspectives, dreams, and goals of the real people who experience poverty. Even with the best intentions, if our solutions to poverty aren’t informed, driven, led, and evaluated by the people experiencing it, those “solutions” are doomed to fail. The same is true of programs designed to end hunger and to empower families to have secure access to healthy food.
So, as each of us enjoy this holiday season, may we be inspired to volunteer at local food pantries, to participate in food drives, and to give back to our community in other meaningful ways. But, let’s also seek to get to know our neighbors on their own terms. May we approach our neighbors who are experiencing poverty and food insecurity in a spirit of warm curiosity and teachability, believing that they hold the key wisdom and insight that is needed to solve these problems.
This week’s Act Locally Waco blog post is by Kelsey Scherer, a Child Hunger Outreach Specialist at the Texas Hunger Initiative. Are you interested in writing a post for the Act Locally Waco blog? If so, please email Ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org.