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 choiceand
determined to do what they could for people who face hunger
without choosing it, on a regular basis.
Too many people in our countryand in
our worldgo without the food they need to survive and
succeed. Our faith tells us that this shouldn't be soand
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 hungermissing
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
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 thousandsor
hundreds of thousandsof 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
Here are seven important principles in brief.