Have you ever been hungry? Truly hungry? Not the hunger one gets in anticipation of a meal, but the kind that pinches the stomach when you know no food is forthcoming. It is the kind of pang you take to bed with you, the kind that greets you when you rise. It is a bitter physical deprivation that gnaws at not only the gut but the spirit. It makes you sad. It makes you angry.
I grew up having to stay one step ahead of hunger. It was like running ahead of tireless hounds through a dark wood.
When the neighborhood children rode by on their bicycles, I worked and weeded the garden. When they rode by in the bus on the way to school, I was knee-deep in mud and feces trying to get runaway hogs back into their pens.
At harvest time we processed all the food in our garden. We sat in a circle, all of us, shucking corn or shelling peas, well into the nights. I remember doing this when I was as young as 5 years old.
The owners of larger farms would sometimes allow us to come and harvest what was left of what they had grown, after they had taken what they needed. We’d show up before sunrise and pick well into the day, when the sun sat high in the Louisiana sky and chased us into the shade.
My mother would bag and can it all. She used a giant deep freezer as a sideboard next to the dinner table, draping a tablecloth over it and decorating it with ceramic knickknacks.
The entire time I was in school I ate a “reduced price” lunch: 50 cents a day, if I recall. And I was among only a few who did. Almost everyone else ate free lunch.
We were poor, my family and my whole community.
I now think a lot about children like the one I was and families like the one I had in this era of pandemic, when unfathomable job losses are hitting low-wage workers hardest, when schools where poor children ate free lunches are closed, where there are now regular news stories of food banks being inundated with desperate families in need of help.
As a Brookings report last week detailed: “By the end of April, more than 1 in 5 households in the United States, and 2 in 5 households with mothers with children 12 and under, were food insecure. In almost 1 in 5 households of mothers with children age 12 and under, the children were experiencing food insecurity.”
David A. Super, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, wrote last week for Talking Points Memo:
“In addition to the sudden disappearance of jobs, our other defenses against hunger are collapsing. Tens of millions of low-income children lost access to free and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches when their schools closed. Tens of millions more have lost access to subsidized meals in child care centers. The summer food programs that try to fill the gap when schools close will face formidable challenges this year.”
Some of this gap is being filled by food banks. In the school district where I grew up in Bienville Parish, Louisiana, the schools are providing bag lunches that students and their parents can come to the schools and get. But none of this is enough.
People will be hungry. They already are. And, hunger is not a thing that you simply become inured to. It makes people desperate, and desperation, on the scale that it will likely occur because of this pandemic, is dangerous.
The effect of this pandemic on the vulnerable isn’t limited to America. This is likely to be a world crisis of hunger and instability. As David M. Beasley, executive director of the U.N. World Food Program, wrote last month in The Washington Post:
The coronavirus pandemic “now threatens to detonate an unprecedented global humanitarian catastrophe. Millions of civilians living in conflict-scarred nations will be further pushed to the brink of starvation. The numbers are shocking: On any given day, the World Food Program offers a lifeline to nearly 100 million people. This includes about 30 million people who literally depend on us to stay alive. Most of them are trapped in war zones and can’t leave.”
The United States is far from a war zone, and yet we still tolerate an extraordinary level of food insecurity, one of the worst among developed countries.
The next time you order your salmon fillets and truffle oil from your online grocer and grouse about out-of-stock crème fraîche, remember that there is severe imbalance to this pandemic and there are people, children, going to bed tonight with stomachs that will not be quieted, that are agitated by their emptiness, dealing with a hunger that will still be there in the morning.