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Facing Hunger in This Land of Plenty

by Thomas J. Bright

The floor was hard and the room cold as the young and not-so-young stretched and yawned their way from sleep to wakefulness in the early morning hours. Lines formed outside the restrooms.

There was warm water to wash hands and faces, but it would be another day without a shower or bath. Mouths watered and stomachs grumbled, provoked by the delicious smells floating in from the kitchen.

Everyone knew, however, that the coming hours, like the dozen before, would be food-free. Despite the hardships, the group talked, smiled and joked together.

No, this isn't an inner-city homeless shelter. It's the basement of a suburban Catholic parish where adults and youth gathered for an overnight service-learning experience.

During their time together, they learned about hunger in their state and country, went without eating to get food and funds for a local soup kitchen, prepared a hot meal for guests at a nearby homeless shelter, and prayed for children and families in need. They were hungry by choice—and determined to do what they could for people who face hunger without choosing it, on a regular basis.

Too many people in our country—and in our world—go without the food they need to survive and succeed. Our faith tells us that this shouldn't be so—and that we need to bring about change. This Youth Update looks at the problem of hunger in our country in a time of plenty, and offers practical suggestions for what you can do to make a difference.

See the Shape of Hunger

Sometimes it's hard to believe that hunger really exists in the United States. When you think of hunger, I suspect you envision an orphaned toddler in hurricane-swept Central America or a grieving parent in drought-stricken Africa.

As real as these images are, they don't describe typical experiences of hunger in the U.S. Hunger here looks and feels different, but is no less real for individuals and families in need. Look at these facts.

Hunger can mean malnutrition or food insecurity: Despite our general prosperity, millions of people in the United States are hungry and malnourished. People who are malnourished aren't getting the food they need because of a lack of food or an inadequate diet.

A fall 2000 survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 31 million people in our country are hungry or likely to be hungry soon (They call it "food insecure," insecure meaning shaky.) This figure represents more than one in 10 of all U.S. households! Of the 31 million, eight million suffer actual hunger—missing meals without a choice.

The remaining 23 million households run out of food before they have money to buy more or eat meals that aren't nutritious. Without food security, children and adults skip meals or eat less.

Too little food, or too little of the right foods, leaves people malnourished. This leads to serious negative health, educational and developmental consequences.

Hunger is young and old and in between: Hunger is difficult and dangerous for anyone, but particularly for the very young and very old, the most vulnerable of our country's residents. Children make up 40 percent of food-insecure individuals. Another 16 percent are seniors. Imagine, almost half of our country's hungry are near your age or younger.

Hunger is urban, suburban and rural (country): Soup kitchens and food pantries aren't just "city" things. Although there is lots of hunger in our cities and towns, we are seeing it as well in suburban and outlying areas.

Twenty-three percent of children in the country live in poverty. One in 10 rural households faces hunger over the course of a year. Hunger is growing in the suburbs as well, with almost eight percent of suburban families admitting to occasional or regular bouts of food insecurity.

Hunger lives among the unemployed and employed: Hunger and unemployment often go hand in hand. Having a job, however, doesn't guarantee that people won't be hungry. More than half of the people who admit to being sometimes or often hungry live in households where at least one person has a job. Often that job is full-time!

Hunger is related to poverty: Children living in poor families are more than twice as likely to be hungry than children in more prosperous families. Today, over 30 million Americans live at or near the federal poverty level, defined in 2001 as an annual income of $14,630 for a family of three. Families with a wage earner working full-time at the current minimum wage ($5.15 an hour) don't come close to earning this much.

The poor are quite resourceful. A recent government study reported that families receiving food stamps spent 20-50 percent less of their food money on salty snacks, candy, cake and soft drinks than other families did. The majority of their purchases were devoted to food high in nutritional value.

Hunger is linked to welfare reform: In 1996, Congress passed a welfare reform bill called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. The bill called for state efforts to limit long-term reliance on welfare and move those on welfare into the workforce.

In its initial years, this effort reduced the nation's welfare and food stamp caseloads. The years 1995 and 1996 witnessed striking reductions in the numbers of people facing hunger.

This trend, however, has not continued. Today, there are more hungry among us than we've seen at any time in the last decade. Clearly, individuals and families need more support and assistance as they make the difficult transition from welfare to work.

Numbers and statistics are useful only if they help us grasp the size of the problem and provide a clear direction for our action. Recognizing that thousands—or hundreds of thousands—of real people stand behind every statistic mentioned here can help us see hunger as a people problem and move us to end it.

What Faith Tells Us

Our Catholic faith provides both reasons and directions for responding to hunger in our land. We can learn lots from looking at the Old and New Testaments and at the social teaching of our Church.

The Old Testament reveals a God who brings forth life. As people made in God's image and likeness, we are called, like the people of old, to nurture life and share the resources of creation. God calls us to covenant, to a special relationship through which we witness our love for God through care for those around us.

The words of Isaiah, spoken centuries ago, still challenge: "This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed...Sharing your bread with the hungry...not turning your back on your own" (58:6-7). God reminds us time and again that we are one people, and that our lives need to be marked by care and compassion for all in need.

As a good and faithful Jew, Jesus obviously took these justice lessons to heart. The New Testament reveals, in Jesus, a God who is passionate about care for the poor. Jesus brought his healing words and touch to those who were hungry and in need around him.

Not only did Jesus walk and talk with them, but he identified himself with them in a very special way. The scene of final judgment in Matthew's Gospel communicates this: "Then the righteous will answer him and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?'....And the king will say to them in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me'" (25:37-40).

Over the last century or so, the Church has collected its wisdom about justice and peace into a body of truth called Catholic social teaching. These principles provide support and direction for our involvement in the work of justice. As simple as they seem, the principles can make a real difference when they are applied to difficult issues like hunger and need.

Here are seven important principles in brief.

1. Human Dignity: All people deserve to be treated with the dignity given them as creations of God.
2. Human Rights and Responsibilities: Because of the dignity God gave them, people have basic human rights, including the right to food and shelter, housing and health care, education and employment.
3. Dignity of Work: Through work, people participate with Jesus to build God's kingdom. Workers have rights and de-serve to be treated with dignity.
4. Stewardship of Creation: As faithful caretakers, we are called to share the goods of creation with all of God's people.
5. Option for the Poor: The poor and vulnerable have a special call on our time and resources.
6. Solidarity: Solidarity means standing together, supporting one another's rights. As a faith principle, it recognizes that all the world's people, despite their differences, are members of one family. Anything that hurts one person or community hurts all.
7. Community and Participation: Justice is strengthened when we work together and learn from everyone involved.

Six Ways to Act Against Hunger

The first part of the Gospel of Matthew presents Jesus as a powerful teacher and preacher. In part two, Chapters 8—10, the Gospel presents Jesus as a powerful miracle worker. Many things are already happening to solve the problem of hunger. Government efforts like the Food Stamp Program, the Special Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) and other federal food distribution programs are already taking a bite out of hunger. National, state and local efforts of civic and church groups also help minimize the impact of hunger on individuals and families in need.

But more needs to be done. No one deserves to live with hunger or food insecurity for even a day. What would it mean to put the lessons of Scripture and Catholic social teaching into action on the issue of hunger? Consider these six attitudes and recommendations.

1. Be grateful. When you sit to eat, thank God for the hands that planted, picked, packaged and prepared the food before you. Compliment the cook! Thank God regularly for all that you are and have. Concentrate on what you already have instead of on the things you want.
2. Share what you have. Gratefulness leads naturally to generosity. Clear good but unused clothing, books, toys and games from your closets. Set aside part of your after-school or summer earnings to help the hungry, homeless and needy. The sooner you start sharing a percentage of what you have with your parish and with people in need (in Church terms, we call this tithing), the easier it will be. Find out as a family what the soup kitchens and food pantries in your community need to keep their doors open and their shelves stocked, then contribute generously. Organize a Souper Bowl event for your local parish. Basic information is in the box on this page.
3. Share your time. When hunger has a face, it's harder to ignore. Volunteer at a local shelter, soup kitchen or food pantry. When you find an agency that makes you feel "at home" and uses your time well, make it a regular commitment instead of a one-time experience. If your schedule is too crowded during the school year, consider taking part in a holiday, spring break or summer vacation program.
4. Know the facts. Stay tuned to what's happening with hunger in our country. Most of the information in this article comes from research posted at America's Second Harvest Web site, www.secondharvest.org. If you'd prefer a simple but powerful video trip through contemporary poverty, visit the Catholic Campaign for Human Development Web site (www.povertyusa.org) and click on "Tour Poverty USA." Read your newspaper regularly, and check your school and public library for additional resources on U.S. hunger and poverty. Catholic Relief Services offers resources for learning about hunger around the world through its Food Fast. Visit www.catholic relief.org/ and order online. Or call 1-800-222-0025, ext. 220, for information and free materials.
5. Speak out. Talk to your family, friends and neighbors about your concern for and involvement with the hungry in our country. Let your legislators know by phone, mail or meeting that you're concerned about the poor and hungry. Encourage them to expand the government Food Stamp and WIC programs so that everyone who is eligible can actually be served. Learn more about what the government can do. Look into legislative efforts to raise the minimum wage as an approach to lessening the pinch of poverty and hunger. Study the issues through the eyes of faith-and vote your conscience as soon and often as you can.
6. Pray hard. First, last and always, keep the hungry and those who work with them in your prayers. Fast for a day or just a meal. It's a powerful, physical form of prayer that can connect you closely with the poor.

Ask God to strengthen your resolve to end hunger and to soften the hearts of those who are unwilling to change. Know that God is walking with you in the effort to remove hunger from our midst.

Thomas J. Bright is the Justice Coordinator for the Center for Ministry Development. A teacher and author, he is also the national director of Young Neighbors in Action, weeklong summer service programs for older Catholic teens. Tom has worked full-time in youth ministry for the past 30 years.

La'Cole Benton (14) and Michael Stephens (16), both baptized at St. Francis Seraph Parish in Cincinnati, Ohio, read this issue of Youth Update, asking the questions now answered in this issue, as well as offering suggestions that made the text more readable.



Souper Bowl of Caring

The concept of Souper Bowl is simple: Use Super Bowl Sunday, a popular annual sports event that pulls family and friends together for entertainment and food, as an opportunity to collect money and food for individuals and families in need.

Souper Bowl began in 1990 when the senior-high ministry program at Spring Valley Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina, organized local congregations to raise funds for hunger relief. Collecting donations outside the church building in large soup pots transformed Super Bowl into Souper Bowl and created the common but powerful image that has carried this project forward.

In its first year, Souper Bowl involved 22 congregations or parishes and raised a few thousand dollars to assist the hungry. When Souper Bowl was celebrated in 2001, it involved over 12,500 congregations and raised $3.6 million!

The project is a faith-based initiative, expressing love for God through care for neighbors in need. Local efforts are organized and run by young people who collect community donations as parishioners leave church on the morning of the game.

Parishioners aren't asked for a lot but a little—a dollar bill and possibly a single, nonperishable food item. Each sponsoring youth group decides independently where to send the donated money and food. The national project is administered by volunteers.

Last year, Souper Bowl organizers made an effort to complement the giving of resources (money and canned goods) with the call for young people to give of their time as well, by serving in a local soup kitchen in the weeks preceding the event, usually in January.

For additional information, organizing tools and educational materials, check out Souper Bowl online at www.souperbowl.org or call 1-800-358-SOUP.


So you're saying that people can work really hard and still be hungry, right? It's hard to believe you can't earn enough money for food!


Food is just one of the things needed for a full life. Other things include housing, clothing, transportation, insurance, medical and dental care. When wages are low and the cost of life's necessities is high, some folks don't have the income they need to meet all their needs and are forced to make hard choices. Sometimes none of the alternatives is good, like choosing to skimp on food rather than lose their housing. No one should have to make such choices!


I'm amazed that one Church group could start such a thing as Souper Bowl. Why did they choose hunger as the "project"?


Hunger is a very real and visible part of life in many of our communities—and a problem that all of us can do something about. The young people of Columbia, South Carolina, saw a local need and responded in a practical and creative way. You and I are challenged to do the same thing: Find an issue that touches our hearts and use our talents and resources to make a difference for the good!


Wouldn't it be better to work in ways that help people to feed themselves than simply to give them food?


Both pieces are essential. To solve the hunger problem, we need both to give people the food they need right now and to provide them with the assistance they need to meet their own needs in the future. For the hungry poor, this assistance can take the form of education and job training, or making sure that people have access to things like affordable transportation and child care.


I want to order print copies of this Youth Update.

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