Hunger Still Affects Millions of Americans
About six blocks west of the White House, I spotted a man recently who appeared to be in his late 40s or early 50s rummaging through a garbage bin, apparently in search of food. Seconds later, I saw him look through to a second pile of trash. That's when I made a sharp turn, hopped out of my car, and gave him a $20 bill.
"Brother, you don't have to do that," I said. On the edge of tears, he thanked me and headed for a nearby store.
I am not recounting this story to receive a pat on the back or because I think I've done something noble. Rather, I am sharing it because it is a scene that is repeated thousands of times each day. Because we almost have to step over homeless people to enter a downtown business establishment or we have perfected the art of seeing and not seeing at the same time, we choose to ignore the suffering that surrounds us.
I am embarrassed to admit that I was not always so quick to come to the aid of my fellow citizens. Yes, I donate to several charities and tithe on Sundays, but I, too, had become somewhat immune -- actually, insensitive -- to some of the homeless' suffering. But a young child in St. Louis changed that. I was with Lillian Villars, whom I was dating at the time, and her daughter, April, who must have been about 9 or 10 years old. We were riding down North Kings Highway when April noticed a man pulling a white plastic cup from a garbage bin and drinking the contents.
"Look at that," April said in disbelief. "We ought to give him something."
Without thinking, I replied, "We can't help every person on the street."
April persisted, "But he's eating out of a garbage can." Point well taken. We pulled over and gave the man some money. I thanked April for restoring my humanity.
After 11 years as a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I joined the Chicago Tribune, serving as a Washington correspondent and later as a New York bureau chief. I was leaving my office in the old New York Daily News building on East 42nd Street late one rainy night when I saw a couple going through a huge pile of garbage in plastic bags on the edge of a curb. This time, I did not hesitate. I gave them $20 and they thanked me. After walking a block, I looked back and they were actually dancing, happy to have some money.
Hunger in America is real. And not everyone asking for help on the street is interested in conning the public or in heading to the nearest liquor store when someone gives them spare change.
Those of us who live in the most affluent country on earth tend to overlook hunger and poverty among us. When we think of hunger, we conjure up images of famine in Africa or India. Indeed, hunger is a global issue, with 852 million people in the world going hungry, according to Bread for the World. In developing countries, six million children die each year, mostly from hunger-related causes. Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region in the world where hunger is on the rise, with 204 million hungry.
Even with safety net programs in place for the poor, such as free school breakfast and lunch programs, hunger is also a problem in the United States.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 35.1 million people -- including 12.4 million children -- live in households that frequently experience hunger or risk hunger. This means 11 percent of all U.S. households fall into this category. Almost 11 million people – including 606,000 children -- live in U.S. households that frequently skip meals, consume an inadequate supply of food or don't eat for an entire day.
Local government officials confirm the federal assessment of hunger.
Last year, the U.S. Conference of Mayors noted a 7-percent increase in the requests for emergency food assistance. Because of the rising demand for emergency food assistance, 45 percent of the mayors said they were unable to meet their community's food needs. Equally important, 63 percent of those polled said they had to decrease the amount of food given out or reduce the number of times people can receive food.
The hunger problem involves more than food. The United States has the highest wage inequity in the industrialized world. That means that even when people have jobs, often the pay is too low for them to properly feed their families. This country must provide well-paying jobs and expanded opportunities for the poor if it really wants to address the issue. Until we do that, we'll continue to see people eating out of garbage receptacles.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator and media coach.