Mind Matters — The Hidden Hunger in America

Recently I attended a county mental health advisory Board meeting. I did not like what I heard: that there is a rising population of the homeless hidden among the affluent. A school administrator reported on how he encounters children every day in his suburban school district who are in need of food and shelter.

When we hear the word “homeless,” we, unfortunately, need to expand our images from the lonely man, chronically mentally ill, who has been discharged from the state hospital ten years ago.

Include now working families living out of their cars or hopping from acquaintance to friend for shower and bed. These are real cases in our community. We used to have strong safety nets, but with the tenor of the times those safety nets are being ripped asunder.

After the meeting, as I drive back to my office, I turn on NPR. Synchronistically, I hear an interview of two documentarians, Lori Silverbush and Kristy Jacobson, discussing hunger in America. They have just directed their film, A Place at the Table, which airs in March, 2013. They noted that 80% of the families receiving food stamps (the SNAP program) are working full time. In other words, many hard working Americans are not earning a living wage. These researchers also report that there are children in the schools who can’t concentrate for lack of nutrition. Our brains do funny things to us when we are hungry, actually starving for the nutrients we lack even if we appear “well-fed.” One little girl in the film says she is told to focus but when she looks at her teacher she imagines her to be a banana. … She is malnourished. Silverbush and Jacobson cite the term “food insecurity” because the hunger may be invisible, hidden in the bodies of those who are obese due to lack of proper diet and nutrition. Cheap and filling food is not usually healthy food.

Meanwhile the expectation is that churches will do it all. I am a Red Cross volunteer and I know how difficult it is to recruit volunteers. Volunteerism can be inconsistent and spotty, and we are all busy! So we expect the homeless and hungry to be cared for with stop-gap emergency measures in the basement of the non-profits. Yes, these are great assets to a community but they depend on volunteers and cannot serve everyone. Moreover, the fact that we need them in the first place is scandalous!

That the need for food banks and shelters is on the rise is a disgrace in an affluent, developed country— the greatest nation in the world, we are wont to say.

We may think, what, whoa, not in my neighborhood! Yet, although I live in a prosperous county of Pennsylvania, on my drive from that mental health meeting, the story of homelessness and hunger was being played out before me. I noticed in the coffee shop I visited, there was a woman sleeping in the corner, big bags at her feet. I thought, hmm, this may be her safe place of refuge for a few hours. Not fifteen minutes later, I noticed a man with a burlap sack on his back, other scruffy bags in hand, walking along the road. My guess is that he is holed up somewhere in the woods between the Mc-mansion housing developments.

Perhaps for starters we can all view this new movie A Place at the Table and then take action in America that supports the common good. As abstract as the term “common good” is, in fact, it is about real people, the children and families of our communities.