The buffalo meat aphorism applies – the more you chew, the bigger it gets.
Statistics abound. We know there are people in every community who are hungry. We think of children going to bed hungry, or unable to learn because they have had no breakfast, or not growing strong bodies not because of genetics but because of poor tutrition. We think of elderly persons who have to choose between food and meds, or who have no transportation to get to the grocery story or the food shelf. We think of parents working two and three shifts to fee their families.
And then we think about what we can do. And many of us do lots. We support the local food shelf with food and funds. We volunteer for Meals-on-Wheels and the food shelf. We support the food drive, the Walk to End Hunger, and we’re working to get ready for FoodShare month coming in March.
Still, we know in our hearts that hunger is one social issue that can be solved. We just do not know how to frame, much less solve, the issue. It’s the buffalo meat conundrum. In my humble opinion, it’s not a lack of political will, but of complexity, unbridled political forces, and the difficulty of identifying the thread of domestic hunger midst the tangle of forces within which it is trapped.
President Obama put a name on some of the entanglements:
Speaking of income disparities, he said: “For me the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.”
He spoke, too, of the limits of the social safety networks: “We remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn. We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss or a sudden illness or a home swept away in a terrible storm.”
He spoke of living wages, “We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work, when the wages of honest labor will liberate families from the brink of hardship.”
The President sets a tone that is emphatic and bold. It’s up to an informed public, advocacy groups and elected officials to break that down into doable programs.
At the top of my list, as usual, is the imperative of transparency. For starts, the main reason we don’t understand the symbiotic relationship between the Farm Bill and hungry Americans is that we can’t fathom the depths of the legalese.
If we know more about the use of public funds we will better understand the many tools we have to cope with hunger. Of course we need to take care of people in need today, but we should not allow ourselves to stop digging deeper into knowing more – not just how many people are hungry, but why?
What is our food and nutrition research agenda? Who is “discovering the facts?”
Who pays for the research?
Who is speaking to Congress? To the State Legislature?
How much of our food dollar goes for advertising? Lobbying?
Why are the elderly going hungry – is it shame, transportation, economics or is it the allocation of SNAP funds?
To what extent is hunger a “women’s issue?
To what extent are the issues of immigration and hunger related?
How are issues of hunger and the environment related?
Where do food co-ops fit in?
What are “competitive foods” and who has a stake in the regulation?
Who decides the ever-changing food pyramid?
Bottom line, hunger in this nation of plenty is one of the most complex issues on our endless banquet of solvable problems. Thinking systemically about hunger is a powerful mental exercise that requires access to information that is current, accurate, impartial and understandable. The conversation about hunger in America must reflect the perspectives of many forces – a challenge in a nation divided.
Still, it is only informed systemic thinking, putting hunger and the right to food in context, that we as a nation or a community will solve what is, in the end, a solvable problem.