Food Poverty

assorted beans in brown sacks
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My brothers and I were incredibly thin while growing up, but we never missed a single meal. Our mother’s food budget was often as slim as we were, but she new enough about nutrition to build a menu schedule that provided us with what we needed without breaking the bank. She was a creative grocery shopper who also had great talent for making delicious meals using a small number of ingredients. Thus we enjoyed the luxury of never going to bed hungry. What we ate had a healthful purpose, so it was a rare day when there were empty calorie foods like sodas or sugary snacks in our home.

My mom understood the value of basics like eggs, beans, and milk in helping our bones to grow and our muscles to maintain their strength. We often took egg sandwiches to school for lunch which admittedly embarrassed me, but they actually tasted good and filled us with enough protein to get us through the afternoon classes. She checked the circulars which were left on our door or arrived in the mail to find the best sales on produce and meat. Our jaunts to various stores were based on a well planned journey in search of the lowest prices. What we would consume during the week was based on whatever was seasonably inexpensive. We learned to appreciate whatever was placed before us, and ate only the amount that was offered. Mama enforced portion control to ensure that the food in our pantry would last for a week at a time. We knew that we were never to take something from the refrigerator or the cabinet without explicit permission lest we ruin her carefully laid plans for feeding us. Snacks were an unknown luxury unless it was a Saturday evening during the times of the month when our mother got paid.

We never had free lunch at our school. We had to purchase the meals, so it was rare for us to eat fare other than whatever we brought from home. Once in a great while Mama would treat us to pizza day or something that we really enjoyed like the turkey and dressing feast at Thanksgiving time. The nice ladies who worked in the cafeteria gave me noticeably huge mounds of food whenever I came through the line. Some of my friends would puzzle over why my portions were so much bigger than theirs. I often suspected that the servers looked at my skinny arms and legs and felt a surge of compassion, adding an extra spoonful to my plate. I always appreciated their generosity and eagerly ate every single drop of food on my tray.

I recently saw an article on the BBC website noting “food poverty” in economically wealthy nations including Great Britain and the United States. The story asserted that one in five children in the U.S.A. come to school hungry. I’m sure the data is correct, but I truly wonder why. As a teacher I know that low income children had access to free or reduced cost breakfast and lunch. The meals were generally nutritious and inviting, but I witnessed so many youngsters throwing most of it away, complaining that it was not what they wanted to eat. The amount of food that ended up in the trash boggled my mind, especially since it was often a step up from the fried egg sandwiches that filled my own childhood belly on so many days. Somehow there is a kind of disconnect between the hunger that children have and their willingness to take the food that is being offered to them.

I also know that with food stamps, food pantries and food banks there are multiple sources of food, so I wonder why families with school aged children are unable to provide just one more meal at home in the evening. There were times when our dinner consisted of a pot of pinto beans. We’d fill a bowl and enjoy the flavor of a high protein and fiber item that also contained vitamin C among other nutrients. We went to bed without pangs of hunger, and never thought to complain that it was such a homely meal. I wonder if there is truly a lack of food of any kind in homes or if the problem is that the children simply don’t want to eat what is available or the parents don’t know how to prepare low cost nutritious meals.

I have a long time friend who spent years working in a church food pantry. She insists that it is very rare for a family to have no source of food. She often speaks of the many places where staples may be found for free. I also know that most public schools are open for breakfast and lunch in the summer that is available without cost for not just children, but the adults in their families as well. The offerings that I have seen are both nutritious and appealing, leaving only one meal to be prepared at home. A good soup can be created without a great deal of money, and if it is paired with some bread it fills the belly nicely. I know this to be true because my mom was the soup queen who used leftover bits of this and that to create fine stews.

I don’t wish to downplay the scourge of hunger or to insinuate that it does not exist, but I wonder if we are adequately preparing those who suffer from “food poverty” in the methods for securing staples and then preparing wholesome meals. My mom learned from her mother who managed to feed a family of ten during the Great Depression. Maybe there are simply too many people who have no idea how to make limited resources work to keep hunger from stalking. Perhaps programs designed to feed the less fortunate should also include lessons on how to make the most of a food budget. I wonder how much waste is created from a lack of the kind of knowledge that my mother had.

It seems almost unbelievable that anyone in our country should be hungry, and yet the data shows that we have yet to feed everyone in spite of great efforts to do so. Maybe we need to include menus and recipes with the food that people purchase with food stamps that might help them to gain maximum benefit from what they choose to buy. Surely we need to determine exactly where the problems lie so nobody need complain of hunger. We have a cornucopia of food in this nation, much of which is destroyed each day. Somehow we are doing something wrong, and we need to honestly determine what changes might work to eliminate the scourge of hunger once and for all.

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