It’s difficult to write about hunger. First, hunger isn’t a pleasant topic. It challenges us to ask hard questions about how we meet everyone’s basic human needs. Second, I don’t know what to say that hasn’t already been said. I could talk about the obscene number of children who go to bed hungry each night. I could talk about the proposed cuts to SNAP benefits (aka food stamps). I could talk about food deserts and lack of access to nutritious foods. I could talk about how healthy food is more expensive than junk food, and many who can’t afford it face health problems like obesity and diabetes. I could talk about how people with disabilities and people who are elderly have disproportionately high rates of hunger. I could talk about how desperate the people of the Philippines are right now and how we can support the efforts of groups like Catholic Relief Services to help meet people’s basic needs. These are all important issues, and they need to be addressed. But there is more.
So often, when we talk about hunger, we use statistics and percentages, which can make the problems seem insurmountable. It breaks our heart that children are the hungriest population when compared to other age brackets. We feel defeated when we realize that one-fifth of Americans have needed to use SNAP benefits. These facts can be helpful in quantifying need and addressing it on an administrative level, but the danger in focusing exclusively on the need is that we can lose sight of the human faces behind the issue.
I’m not even sure I know what the word “hunger” means. I feel hungry if I don’t eat for a few hours. I feel really hungry during Lent on those few days of the year I have to fast. All I can think of is food. Sometimes I experience what I think of as discomfort. I might be a little chilly, or a little sick. I might fast by having only one regular-sized meal and two small meals. But what is a penance for me is a feast for someone else. My experience of need would be another person’s experience of abundance.
That’s hard to swallow, especially between Thanksgiving feasts and Christmas dinners where I experience obvious abundance. Being hungry for a few hours hurts. But being so hungry that you get sick? Being so hungry you score poorly on tests at school? Being so hungry you can’t keep up with the demands of normal physical activity? Being so hungry that it kills you?
I can’t speak to those experiences. Honestly, I can’t even imagine what they’re like. But in meeting people who are hungry, through volunteering at homeless shelters and other experiences, I’ve begun to realize a truth. “They” aren’t separate from you and me — they are you and me. One woman I’ve met is studying to be a medical transcriptionist and is in the process of obtaining permanent housing. A man refuses to take money for assistance unless he can perform some sort of service in return. These people are taking steps to improve their lives. They have dreams and dignity. Like all of us, they just want to be filled.
I know some of the first steps I can take to make a difference. I can donate food. I can donate with intention, too, so that people don’t just get whatever is cheapest, but food with actual nutritional value. I can get involved with unique food collection efforts, like gleaning. I can let my legislators know that I want to keep SNAP benefits. I can educate myself about the research and policy efforts related to hunger, by reading sources like the Bread for the World Hunger Report. I can volunteer at St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchens and community food initiatives, like Bread for the World and Feeding America. I can skip a fancy dinner at a restaurant and give the cost of that meal to a local food pantry. I can remember that it is a privilege to be someone’s coworker in making things better for them. Most of all, I can keep ready to encounter people, to really ask them what they need, to look them in the eye, and to interact with them as human beings.
During the Christmas season, we remember how Jesus became human for us. He became so vulnerable, a baby. His family was poor, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that he would have been hungry some of the time. Mother Teresa used to say that Jesus is visible in “the distressing disguise of the poor.” If we look closely enough into their eyes, we can see Him. So if I want things to be better, I should ask what people need. I should look them in the eye. I should say to them — How can we fill you?
And I should listen to their answer.