Huge thanks to Vershal Hogan for offering to write a second guest post for us! You can see his first Tuesday Justice post here: The Day I Became a White Man Was the Day I Became a Black Man: A Story About Race.
by Vershal Hogan
I will never forget that can of stewed tomatoes and okra.
The pantry in our dingy-walled apartment, where the rent was late but we were still within the grace period, was empty.
Except for that can.
It had come, I think, from a box of government commodities my grandmother had received. I am not sure how it ended up in our pantry, but it sat there, waiting for someone to figure out what to do with it. It was not appealing.
For the past couple of days, my wife and I had been slowly scaling back how much we ate to make sure our children didn’t go hungry and that the groceries would last. That evening, the family had eaten the last of everything, and I had quietly skipped the meal. Payday was the next day.
Everyone else was in bed, and I was alone in the pantry, staring at that can, the last food in the apartment. Hunger finally said, “Enough.”
I took it off the shelf and walked over to the counter where I slowly opened it, and — crossing the room to sit at the table — ate one of the worst meals of my life directly from the can.
How I had gotten there was a mix of personal mistakes and bad timing. I’d left my former job to return to school, but the national recession that almost immediately followed that decision had made finding work difficult; I had three over-the-table jobs (my wife also had an under-the-table childcare arrangement) and still didn’t work enough combined hours to be considered full-time. Rent claimed most of that (minimum wage) money, fuel prices were high and we lived without frills. Because work was slower than anyone anticipated when we made our plans, we were forced to eat the savings we had.
We were able to buy groceries the day after I ate the tomatoes and okra. We came close to repeating that story a few times — our pastor even pulled us aside in a couple of instances and said we could avail ourselves of the church’s food pantry if we needed to — but we never got quite that desperate again.
That experience changed how I saw food security, and it has remained with me in better times.
What is food security?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food security and insecurity in four categories:
- High food security (old label=Food security): no reported indications of food-access problems or limitations.
- Marginal food security (old label=Food security): one or two reported indications—typically of anxiety over food sufficiency or shortage of food in the house. Little or no indication of changes in diets or food intake.
- Low food security (old label=Food insecurity without hunger): reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake.
- Very low food security (old label=Food insecurity with hunger): Reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.
Reports at the USDA’s Economic Research Institute show that in 2016 12.3 percent of households in the U.S. — nearly 15.6 million people — were considered food insecure at some point that year, and 7.4 percent of households — 9.4 million people — were considered to have low food security. The ERI reported that, like in my own story, parents and caregivers worked to shield children from reductions in food intake, but 298,000 households still saw children face disruption in how often they were able to eat.
So why is this a justice issue?
It seems obvious on its face, but many people don’t realize how critical food — especially healthful food — is to a functioning society. People who are hungry are very often people who are not healthy, and people who are hungry and unhealthy are not going to be able to function as well in their jobs or in their schools.
Food insecurity likewise tends to affect groups that are already in danger of disenfranchisement, which means — because they are less likely to perform well or be healthy — they will continue to be marginalized.
The rate of food insecurity for all groups is 12.3 percent, but as the USDA statistics note, some groups tend to face it at higher rates than others:
- All households with children (16.5 percent),
- Households with children under age 6 (16.6 percent),
- Households with children headed by a single woman (31.6 percent),
- Households with children headed by a single man (21.7 percent),
- Women living alone (13.9 percent),
- Men living alone (14.3 percent),
- Black, non-Hispanic households (22.5 percent),
- Hispanic households (18.5 percent), and
- Low-income households with incomes below 185 percent of the poverty threshold (31.6 percent; the Federal poverty line was $24,339 for a family of four in 2016).
Issues of food security are especially high among those with disabilities, with 33 percent of households with a person with a reported disability keeping them from the workforce reporting food insecurity.
But even for those who fall outside the groups typically identified as marginalized, food insecurity mostly likely means whole-life insecurity. Studies have associated food insecurity with diminished mental health status.
So what can I do?
First, be aware that many people are hiding their own food insecurity. I volunteer at a local food bank every week, and one of the things that strikes me is how very normal most of the people look. Many come through after finishing a shift at work, or in their work uniforms. In some cases, people who qualify for the assistance have someone else picking it up for them, often because they are unable to do so themselves.
Second, recognize that it is likely not a choice. While an adult with food security issues may look typical, they may in fact have a hidden disease such as a mental illness or neurological condition that may have good and bad days that makes consistent or full-time work difficult. They may be a caregiver for someone with a disability, or they may be stuck in a cycle of unemployment or trying to exit an addiction. They could be a child or young person without the capacity to fully provide for themselves.
Third, donate. Give money or food to a local food pantry or a backpack program, which — in cooperation with local schools — distributes backpacks of food to students in need before they leave each weekend.
When you donate, don’t send expired food or food you wouldn’t eat yourself. While some food banks have some wiggle room on expiration dates, it’s not much and they will have to throw them away. Besides, what are you really saying if you’re giving a food insecure person a can that expired in 2014 and telling them, “I wouldn’t eat this, but you can.”
You should also likewise consider giving a little variety of food. Food drives tend to bring in lots and lots of cans of corn and green beans. Those are needed, but man does not live on grain and legumes alone.
While many food banks need most of their food to be shelf stable, some — including the one where I volunteer — have freezers and can put up meat and dairy. Check to see if they can accept those items. Families appreciate being able to receive items such as cheese or butter.
Desserts are also a nice donation. Some people might want to gripe about poor people eating sweets (thinking that being poor is a moral failing that deserves to be punished), but if they’re coming through our pantry, they’re receiving other foods. When life is hard, sometimes a piece of cake may serve its own purpose.
And one final thing on donations — consider cash. I mentioned it above, but it bears repeating. Food donations help stock shelves, but during some seasons (i.e. when it’s not Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter) they tend to slow down. Having cash on hand helps the pantry not only keep the lights on but restock when needed.
Fourth, donate time. I know not everyone can do this, but food security organizations — whether they are independent or linked to a faith community — overwhelmingly rely on volunteer labor. It’s not glamorous, but someone needs to move boxes and stock shelves.
Fifth, vote for people who are going to support food security policies. Many pantries are able to operate in part because they participate in USDA commodity programs or other local, state and federal initiatives. Discussions in recent years have hinted that funding for those services may be reduced or ended altogether.
I cannot feed the world. But I can do my best to make sure fewer people have to stare down the last can in their pantry.