Across America, every day of the school week, millions of children will arrive early and go directly to the cafeteria. There, they will have their first meal of substance since leaving school the day before. At the end of the school week, teachers will pack staples for them and their families, most of which comes from local food banks or farm to school programs. By careful rationing of the food provided, there will be enough to last until school begins again the following week. They live, these children and their families, meal to meal, their source of food a most unlikely place: their school.
The rate of poverty has increased by 20% in the last decade and the number of children who face what food banks in the United Sates call “slow and steady starvation” easily approach 15 million or more.
Sadly, they are largely unnoticed. Even more so since their plight has become so accepted that it seems only natural that their state of existence should be a part of the social structure! And, in spite of the fact that so many of their families are working – working at low paying jobs with no benefits and with little hope of doing better.
But this should not be the case and it speaks very poorly for a country that was, supposedly, built on valuing individual strengths and unbounded opportunity.
Oddly, they are caught in the middle of the “politics of hunger” as congress struggles to fulfill its moral obligations to the increasing numbers of hungry children. After almost 15 years of debate, in 2012, congress did approve new nutritional guidelines for school lunch programs that were directed at the need for healthier menus. As a means of supporting school systems that adopted these new standards, an increase of 6 cents for each lunch served was allocated. In an odd move however, congress did declare that pizza is a vegetable!
This somewhat convoluted approach to providing food for the hungry children also was designed to combat the paradoxical problem of childhood obesity. However, vast numbers of school systems found it difficult to comply with the new guidelines as costs for healthier foods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, exceeded the cafeteria budget. The need for new and improved food service equipment only added to the debt burden. The result of all this is that the “safety net” source of food for the hungry remains marginally nutritional, laden with fat and high in sugar, adding excess weight and empty calories.
Controversies in congress, over supplemental food programs for poor families, free school breakfasts and lunches and nutritional standards have made planning and implementation of school budgets and menus more difficult. By the same token, states with their strapped budgets have been asked to shoulder more of the fiscal burden. The “politics of hunger” simply means less support, less food and more hungry children.
It is certainly true that much attention at all levels has been given to the multiple and complex problems of hunger and the paradoxical presence of obesity. Poor nutrition, food shortage, labeling of food products, the cost of eating, lack of sound nutritional education and the means to pay for adequate food supplies all constitute a mix of issues that are hard to manage. They become the elements of an agenda that characterize the struggle to find common ground in the politics of hunger surrounding the feeding of our children. Common sense would suggest that there ought to be better and simpler ways to achieve the necessary goals of eliminating hunger, preventing obesity and keeping food budgets, for everyone, within reasonable levels.
Socially and politically, steps can be taken to do so. Communities can step up to address school budgets in a way that will allow for nutritious food for all students. All families, especially those with the means to do so, should take seriously the foods they buy and the meals they prepare. Reliance on “food in a hurry” should be kept to a minimum. Governments, federal and state, should assess seriously the real need and the real numbers of those who are hungry and translate that information into priorities for action. Hospitals, medical clinics and medical practitioners should address hunger, nutrition, and healthy eating habits at every encounter.
In short, hunger, obesity, poor nutrition and the myriad of consequences that result are not just a problem for someone else. The “politics of hunger” is an agenda of the body politic. And that includes us all.