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Hunger in the Land of Enough

Opinion | November 17, 2014

We need to re-imagine how we think about hunger. For many, the idea of hunger evokes an image blurred by notions of the homeless, the urban poor, and the unemployed waiting on Depression-era bread lines. The image of hunger and food insecurity in America today is markedly different from what we believe, and what it used to be.

Food insecurity, as classified by the USDA, is a household-level socioeconomic condition of limited and uncertain access to adequate and nutritious food. While the USDA reports that Massachusetts’ food insecurity is below the national average, there has still been significant growth of those relying on food stamps and federal hunger aid in New England.

According to Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks, more than 46 million Americans rely on food service programs to feed themselves and their families. That is 14.3 percent of the population. Before the recession, the number was 11.1 percent. This increase is not coming from those who epitomize the typical images of hunger; it is due to those who were previously middle-class and became unemployed after 2008, and can no longer afford to feed their families.

In 2013, Project Bread reported that 11.4 percent of Massachusetts’ households—700,000 children and adults—could not confidently predict where their next meals were coming from. That number is nearly 40 percent higher than it was before the recession and almost 80 percent higher than at the beginning of the last decade. Evidently, Boston’s suburbs are not protected from the growing problem of hunger insecurity and poverty, and may be facing a different problem entirely.

While many students at Tufts have the luxury of going down to the dining hall and choosing from a variety of nutritious and not so nutritious foods, many in our community surrounding Boston do not. Housing prices are on the rise, trendy coffee shops infiltrate Somerville and Medford, and yet there are still many who have to go to local food pantries at the end of the week to fill their empty cupboards.

“There are constantly people who need the help. This is not an issue of getting new textbooks or school supplies, it is much more pressing than that. People need to eat,” said Dorothy Goodwin, the founder of Gathering Change, a non-profit that raises hunger awareness and funds to support neighborhood food pantries in the Boston area. Food pantries often operate independently of government aid, and provide those who qualify with bags of groceries for each family member, which usually last three to four days.

“One of the most shocking moments for me was when I went to drop off the first check to a food pantry in Winchester,” said Goodwin. Like many, Goodwin expected to see a certain type of person receiving bags of groceries from the food pantry. “I was expecting to see some homeless people, or others who were obviously living in poverty. I was floored. Nearly everyone there in line looked exactly like me,” she said.

Chances are that if you picture what hunger looks like, you don’t picture someone who looks like you. Amber [last name omitted for privacy], a 20 year-old single mother living in Arlington, doesn’t quite fit this mold either—yet she relies on WIC (Woman Infant Children special supplemental nutrition program) checks to get her through the month. I’ve known Amber since she became pregnant at 17, and have watched her struggle and work through her pregnancy and after the birth of her daughter, Lillianna.

Prior to her pregnancy in 2011, Amber was already in a difficult position. Her father had walked out when she was a baby, her mother had lost her job in 2009 and was selling Avon products, and her grandmother required a respiratory machine to breathe. With one low income, the family relied on government aid and WIC checks to get them through the month as well as government subsidies on their apartment. After the birth of Amber’s daughter in March 2012, the situation only grew more difficult.

While pregnant, Amber applied for more WIC checks for both her and her daughter. “It was a bit embarrassing,” she said of the experience. “I had to waddle on down to the local WIC office all pregnant, and everyone was just looking at me and I felt like they were judging me. But I didn’t care, you gotta do what you gotta do.” WIC is a program run by both the state and the federal government that provides funds for pregnant women, new moms, and children under age five to stay healthy. For a family of four to qualify, their annual income must be no higher than $44,123. Those who are already on food stamps or Medicaid automatically qualify.

Initially, Lillianna’s diapers and other baby items took up most of the family’s food budget and they had to rely on WIC checks to feed everyone, which just wasn’t enough. “That was when I had to go down to the Arlington Food Bank at the end of every month,” says Amber. “It was okay. The people there were nice, but it was mostly pasta, canned food, and cereal.”

Amber currently works five days a week as a receptionist in Boston, while Lillianna is in daycare. Her mother continues to sell Avon products, and they no longer rely on the food pantry, but Amber has to bring her calculator and approved WIC list of food every time that she goes to the supermarket. Lillianna gets to sit in the cart and play educational games on her iPad. For every item, Amber has to check it off the list, write down the price, and make sure it corresponds to the WIC guidelines.

At first glance, Amber seems like a typical New Englander. She has a car, has a job, an iPhone, and an iPad (albeit with a shattered screen). She has her GED, and is hoping to go to UMass Boston sometime in the near future. However, her salary just doesn’t cover the cost of paying for everything that her small family needs. “We’re definitely not starving,” she says. “There is always something at home to eat, whether it be cookies, Cheerios, cereal, whatever. We just don’t really have that luxury anymore of going to the supermarket and choosing whatever Lillianna wants. I can’t wait to do that.”

Talk of the economic recovery and the optimistic job market is pervasive in many discussions. However, it is evident that this recovery has yet to reach many. There needs to be a collective moral consciousness that not only people in our country, but people in our community, are unable to fill fridges with their own salaries and are forced to find alternative resources to make ends meet.

One way to begin to address the root causes of hunger would be to support current calls for a higher national minimum wage based on a living wage that enables all Americans to live a decent lifestyle and put food on their tables. Another way is to support international and local efforts to restructure the global and national food economy in order to bring about a more just and environmentally sustainable economy.

It is time for us to examine the state of food security, and lack thereof, in our communities, both on and off campus. We must set forth a new vision of who goes hungry and what role we all have to play in confronting food insecurity.