Going hungry

Breadline USA: The Hidden Scandal of American Hunger and How to Fix It

America’s No. 1 health problem, the media relentlessly tell us, is obesity. Americans eat too much and we’re the fattest people in the world.

Except that, according to Sasha Abramsky, author of Breadline USA: The Hidden Scandal of American Hunger and How to Fix It, many Americans go hungry on a regular basis. And even many of those who aren’t hungry today suffer from what experts have taken to calling “food insecurity.” That means that they have consistent insecurity about where food (and the money to buy it) will come from.

Hunger, as Americans tend to think of it, is people (usually in Africa) who have no food at all: acute famine, leading to starvation. But the face of hunger in America—while it does include some people with no food at all—just as often is the working family that lacks the money to make ends meet. Abramsky reports on the millions of Americans, as employed as they can be in the current economic straits, who must decide between spending their limited funds for food today or for gas to get to work to make money for food next week.

Then there are the rural poor, who are doubly screwed: With energy prices rising nonstop, the gas to get to work, the gas to go to the grocery store and the money to buy the food usually overlap. It’s only possible to split a dollar so many ways before something has to give; if you don’t have gas money to get to the food pantry, you’ll go hungry today.

Abramsky, a regular contributor to SN&R who has written in these pages about hunger in Sacramento (see “America’s dirtiest secret”; SN&R Feature; February 15, 2007), tries to live on the amount of food we allot to our poorest neighbors. Perhaps the most moving passages in the entire book are his descriptions of his own hunger and the anxiety that surrounds it; he makes clear that the psychological damage done by want is as bad as the physical pain of an empty belly. Once we become insecure about where our food is going to come from, food becomes an obsession.

What’s clear from reading Breadline USA is that hunger in America is a complicated issue, intricately linked to larger economic problems such as the loss of manufacturing jobs; the rise of big-box, low-wage employers; the rising cost of health care; and the way that inflation (chronically underestimated by government and business) has decimated the buying power of those on limited or fixed incomes, especially the elderly.

It’s not just the limited choices—the ramen noodles we all live on in college, pasta and mac ’n’ cheese, beans and rice until you think you’re going to die of it—but the fear that there won’t be enough that causes an unrelenting stress. Because the cheapest food is also the most filling (and the most starch-filled), it’s easy to gain weight while suffering nutritionally. Abramsky duly notes his tendency to scarf down his food rather than savor it, as well as the way that thinking about food becomes a habit when there’s not enough of it.

After a trip to a local food pantry (and the depersonalizing, institutional debasement that accompanies getting food assistance in even the kindest of circumstances), Abramsky writes: “I was hungry and wanted to return to my kitchen to rip open the bags and see what food items the guardian angels had sent my way.”

But Americans shouldn’t have to rely on “guardian angels” to provide ramen noodles. The solutions offered in Breadline USA are common sense, and most of them would do wonders for the economy as well. It’s only our ignorance of the long-term cost of hunger—as well as its prevalence—that keeps us from helping.