I will always remember the story my dad told me: Sometime in the 1940s, Walter Boyd, who owned a small grocery store in the Seale community where I grew up, noticed a poor sharecropper enter the store on Monday and hang around until all the other customers had left. The man then said, “Walter, I wonder if you could give me a little credit to buy some food. You see, my family hasn’t had anything to eat since Friday.”
Mr. Boyd gave him enough credit to buy some basic foodstuffs like grits, flour, and beans and suggested he ask his landlord for an advance against his next crop. Thinking back to my schooldays in the 50s, I never went hungry and I didn’t know of any kids in school who did. That doesn’t mean there weren’t any. There were some who received a free lunch, and I suspect more would have qualified but didn’t claim it out of family pride.
The August issue of National Geographic (NG) magazine has an excellent article entitled “The New Face of Hunger in America.” I wasn’t aware that one in six Americans says their food supply runs out at least once a year. That’s a contrast to European countries, where it’s closer to one in twenty people who run out of food.
As for what’s new, author Tracie McMillan says that in contrast to those classic photos from the 1930s we see often, today’s hungry people are most often “white, married, clothed, and housed, even a bit overweight.” They also live in the suburbs, like Spring, TX. NG always has great photos, and those also reflect the “new face” described by McMillen.
Why are hungry people “overweight.” The answer is simple: “Hunger and obesity are two sides of the same coin [because] people are making trade-offs between food that’s filling but not nutritious and may actually contribute to obesity.”
I understand that because I recently completed a course on diabetes and learned to avoid a lot of “comfort” foods like pasta and breads that used to satisfy my hunger. It is also true that the foods distributed by food banks aren’t always the most nutritious—they have to take what they can get.
Put another way, if you ate only the foods supported by government subsidies, you’d die of malnutrition. From the 50s I remember school lunchroom snacks of cheese, peanut butter and honey, and milk for two cents a pint.
Hunger in America is a significant problem, and the NG article outlines some of the reasons. For example, it is possible to eat well cheaply in this country, but it takes resources and knowledge that many low-income people don’t have, such as how to raise a home garden and can fresh produce in season. The skills our parents had for raising their own food and preserving it are gone and not likely to make a comeback.
Dr. Jerry Lincecum is a retired English professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories. He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.