There was an article last weekend in the New York Times about rising poverty and its resulting food insecurity across America.
Food insecurity—families and kids losing access to food—is a term I first heard when I worked with refugees in South Sudan, back in my war zone years.
At that time, the early nineties, the civil war in South Sudan had been going on for almost a decade and because of a whole host of reasons (geopolitical, post-colonial, religious, and cold war-related) South Sudan was one of the furthest outposts of civilization in the world. There were few roads, no local currency, no legitimate markets, few shops or schools, and most transit happened by walking days or weeks through uninhabited bush, sometimes along or through the River Nile that bifurcates South Sudan. It was a place where development had stopped generations earlier and where most of the people I worked with were homeless and running from war.
Where there were roads in South Sudan, they were usually dirt paths full of potholes with land mines laid within the puddles. On the road we drove nearly every day, there was a burnt-out carcass of a bus; the remnants of passengers and metal decaying together.
For our work, we flew in everything we needed except the thatch and sticks and mud to build our huts and clinics. There was no local supply of clothing, bedding, household goods, let alone teaching supplies or medicines—or food. Due to the war and population movements, there were few, if any crops, and even fewer animal herds. Once, for the graduation of our health workers, we wanted meat for the celebration and had to drive a full day across the border, into Uganda, to buy a single sheep (and a rare bottle of 7-Up.)
In places like that, we expect food insecurity. In fact, every time we arrived at a new location, we’d start by asking questions about hunger while measuring the diameter of the children’s upper arms to tell us about a community’s nutritional status. We’d ask about stocks of food they’d brought with them and stroll through deserts or forests to search out traditional food sources that might be recognizable to the incoming refugees: greens or vegetables or medicinal plants in their new, if temporary, home.
What I learned in Sudan was that food was a major reason people run or fight; it’s a weapon of war, an act of bribery or retribution—as when civilian food stocks are burned or stolen to support an army. Food insecurity is a major reason that populations shift, and can be a reason societies scatter—or die out. On a family level, searching for food is a reason that parents leave home—maybe not coming back—and it’s often why children are sent away.
In fact, the question of food and food insecurity became the crux of nearly all the work I did for two years in South Sudan.
But what I also realized there, is that my own experience of food insecurity had come years earlier—I just didn’t know it had that name.
For my family, food insecurity was a consequence of divorce. My family was like millions of others who were stably middle class until a drastic change in our status quo. For us, it was going from a one-paycheck single household that could afford necessities, to two post-divorce households, where suddenly neither was able to make much more than rent. With three dependent children, my mother qualified for food stamps, so once she applied, those paper coupons began arriving in the mail, allowing us to purchase a specific amount of food each month, usually of a specific brand.
I hated shopping with those damn coupons—anxious that we might be seen by someone we knew or that we’d get a cashier who was a teenager or even worse, a judgmental older person, letting us know she didn’t approve.
I was afraid of being scolded (as we nearly always were) for trying to purchase something ‘not on the list’ and then feeling like a guilty scammer; or owing money for things that we knowingly purchased outside the list and then having to count out our dollars and dimes and quarters to pay the difference. Or worse—nightmare of all nightmares—the times, when somehow our calculations went wrong and we didn’t have enough to pay, and having to ask the lady at the register to start deleting items that we’d already bought. A slow and steady process of math and humiliation that resounded in a chorus of huffs from all the impatient shoppers behind us in line.
What I felt, more than anything else, was the social ostracism that comes with food insecurity. The blame and shame of it. So much so that when my own teenager got a job at a grocery store, decades later, I cringed when she told me that her employers had a special system for dealing with SNAP customers (the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program).
“What do they ask you to do?” I asked, imagining horrors even worse than my own mortification, because for all the societal change since my youth, I’m pretty sure the food stamp program hasn’t grown more generous.
“We’re supposed to turn off our light so that people have privacy while we cash them out.”
I wanted to cry; wishing anyone had thought to provide me that privacy back then.
In Sudan, luckily, I also learned the impact that food security has on society. That when food sources are stable and present for a population, there is better nutrition, better health outcomes, improved school outcomes, and more household access to stable housing—meaning more community prosperity—at least until the war made people run again.
I also realized that food security, even in the short term, helps people recover their humanity.
One of the tasks I had in South Sudan was to identify possible locations for food delivery whenever populations took up new positions in their escape from war. We had to search out flat land for airstrips where United Nations flights could land their food deliveries or where an open field might allow a larger Food Drop from a cargo plane, lofting huge shipping crates out the back end of an Antinov for a large, planned crash of food onto a targeted drop site.
Once we identified a viable terrain, the local community leaders would organize people to clear and/or prep the landing zone. They’d burn off scrub, hack down trees with machetes, remove rocks and stones, and send women to stomp the broken ground into smooth, hard soil. Then, if the ground armies and the air raids of the war held off long enough, food deliveries would arrive. In areas where overland delivery was possible, a convoy of trucks—travelling hundreds of miles across mined and washed-out roads—would drive for days to bring their loads of bagged maize meal and cooking oil to the camps.
That’s what it required to bring food to South Sudan.
What’s our excuse?
It’s interesting, because when it comes to helping ‘the needy’ overseas, most people understand that poverty and hunger are tragic. That it’s less an opportunity for humiliation than an opportunity to solve a problem.
That’s harder for most people to see here.
In my favorite Sudanese site, Labone, a tiny village just north of the Ugandan/Sudanese border, there was a feeding camp run by a French aid organization. Sylvie, the French nurse, taught me what to do with the children most hungered: before you can feed them, you have to engage them. Because before they die from hunger, they stop making connections with the world.
Sylvie showed me her stock of a few homemade toys: a stick doll; a wad of paper tied into a ball; and some colored pictures that someone from home had sent. I’d sit at a bedside, trying to get a child to look at me—at my strange, round, white face—and if I could catch their eyes and interest them, I’d give them one of the toys, hoping to engage them ‘back into the world’ as Sylvie said. Because only once you made a connection with a child can you solve their hunger.
That’s always stuck with me.
That hunger cuts people off from the world before it edges them out of life.
There is a listlessness that comes with starvation, I learned. The walling off of awareness in a child, who stares, eyes wide open, into the middle distance. Mothers who have already experienced that stare, having more than one child who has died of hunger, recognize that look, and they often leave the clinic at that point, not coming back, maybe unable to witness again a child fading into death.
I thought of that as I read the New York Times article. How in this land of rising stocks prices and multiple homes and such extreme, ugly wealth—there are households in our midst who are fading right before our eyes. That as it gets harder—and more humiliating—for millions of families to access enough food because of increasing lay-offs and closed schools and household incomes dropping, that as food banks and government programs strain as the problem grows, that we, too, will see a similar cutting off. People who need help will pull away, choosing to forgo assistance the more they feel too outside the world to receive it.
Food insecurity has always existed in the United States, but somehow, we don’t seem able to solve it. Among our peers, we have a higher rate of food insecurity than many other developed nations. And we don’t even have the excuse of war, or that our roads or transport or food production systems are the problem.
I think of how Sylvie taught me to engage the children. Reconnecting them first to the world around them through personal interaction—and only then, addressing their hunger.
We have to humanize hunger before we can treat it.
Like turning off the light at the cashier to offer privacy—and really, offering more. Respect. Understanding.
At least that feels like a good start.