Have you ever felt so hungry you are ready to gnaw off your fingers? Your stomach is turning in on itself and making tortured bubbly growls. You feel light-headed, perhaps you have a nagging headache. You can't focus but press on through the day regardless, knowing that you will eventually be able to eat a full meal, just not right now. Maybe, that day, you were too queasy for breakfast and too busy to eat lunch. After running around all day, you come home absolutely ravenous. So, you fix yourself some dinner, and fill your belly with some nutritious food. Lasagna, perhaps, Or chicken and rice, or some salmon with veggies. Something nourishing. On some nights you may even treat yourself to a brownie, or a little cup of butterscotch pudding.
Immediately you feel better but think, "Wow. I should have made the time for myself to eat today. I couldn't concentrate. It would have been so much more productive if I had just taken care of this basic human need.” The difference between you and millions of children in America today, is you have the resources to do so.
Now, imagine this. Feeling this hungry all the time. Every day. Knowing that the only meal you will have is a mass-produced lunch slapped onto a Styrofoam tray, canned veggies, oily meat, greasy pizza, or squished PB&J. You eat it because it's there, because it is all that's available to you. Sometimes, if you can wake up on time, you get on an earlier bus or leave the apartment a few minutes in advance to walk the several blocks to school by yourself. You eat the breakfast the school offers, which is usually a tiny carton of milk or juice, and small, dried-up muffin or bagel.
Now, imagine this. You have been starving for most of your life. You are eleven years old and your body needs nutrients to grow properly and fuel your brain. Malnutrition has detrimental and cumulative effects on the brain, nervous system, and digestive system. Light-headedness, confusion, queasiness, and headaches are a part of your normal routine, especially in the morning when your last meal was maybe 20 hours ago, and if it’s a Monday, more than a day or two ago. You are too thin and your skin has a pale yellow pallor, and you are fully aware of your teacher's awareness of your constant hunger by the way she slips you a cereal bar from her lunch or looks at you with helpless sympathy in her eyes. You feel shame.
You do not have the ability to go out and get a job. You do not have the courage to complain about your hunger to your parents, because they are hungry, too. Maybe there is a baby to feed in the house and all available funds go to feeding her and keeping the apartment. Maybe all there is in the cabinets is rice. Maybe your parents are too proud to ask for help or go to a food pantry. Maybe your mommy works two jobs and it’s your responsibility to scrape whatever is in the cupboards together into a meal for your little siblings. And you feed them first, because they’re, well, little.
Now, imagine this. In school, you are expected to sit in your seat for several hours and concentrate on test preparation work that confuses and bores the life out of you, but images of that lunch on the Styrofoam tray are dancing in front of your eyes. Your teacher tries to help you as much as she can, but there are 29 other kids in the class, and some of them are rude bullies who are cursing and yelling, and that makes it even more futile to even try and focus. Dreams of a successful future are forsaken by the fact that you try as hard as you can in school, put in your very best effort, but can't focus on your work because you are always always hungry.
One day, your teacher takes you down the street to a food pantry after school. She gathers information and tells you to give the phone number and address of the organization to your mom. When you take the information home, she refuses to go. She is too proud, too humble to take charity. Where Mommy comes from, there are many people much hungrier than you are. It would not be right to take food from the mouths of others. The next day, you go to school and your teacher asks, “Did Mom call the food pantry?” You bow your head down on your desk, knowing she was trying to help. Your mother’s pride is making you feel shameful. Your teacher starts giving you a cereal bar every day.
(This is a true account of a student in my class. She is ONE example of MANY hungry children I have taught.)
So, faithful reader, what do you think happens?
For healthy, well-fed people of all classes, races, cultures, and creeds:
Put yourself in the position of this hungry inner-city child. At what grade level would YOU have completely checked out and stopped caring? At what age would you have joined a gang out of desperation of support and belonging, or sold drugs or your prepubescent body in hopes of acquiring some cash to feed yourself or your hungry baby sister? At what point would you have relinquished your childhood dreams of being a veterinarian or an artist or a teacher? When would YOU give up on yourself?
I write this post because it is a REALITY for some of my students. Every day I look that hungry child in the eyes, I pray with every inch of my being to God that she does not relinquish her dreams because of her constant hunger. I hope beyond all hope that it does not suck the hope and life and joy out of that amazing, poetic, imaginative mind. And then, I come home, eat a good, home cooked, healthy meal with my family, and thank my lucky stars.