As I sit here, staring at a blank computer screen, my stomach has most of my attention. Why? Because I’m hungry.
There is food in my house, but I am deliberately not eating it right now. I’ll explain why in a few minutes. First, a trip down memory lane….
…Mornings at my house when I was a kid were chaotic. They started quietly enough: my dad would get up first and put the coffee on. Dad would wake my mom with a steaming hot mug of joe. She would sit up in bed and have her first cigarette of the day with her first coffee. This was Mom’s sacred time, and we were not to bother her before the second coffee/cigarette combo. From my bed in the room I shared with my three sisters, I would hear Dad in the bathroom, brushing his teeth, doing deep knee bends at the sink (I heard these because his knees crackled the whole way through each squat), shaving. Around this point in the day’s progression, all six of us kids would finally be roused and sent scurrying to get ready for school or to eat breakfast. Weekday breakfasts, before school, were invariably cereal and milk. We fought over who got to have which box in front of them as we spooned the sugary goodness (Honeycombs, Sugar Smacks, Rice Krispies, etc.) into mouths which appeared to our parents to be perpetually open.
Once the older kids were done with breakfast and our school uniform attire had been at least cursorily inspected by Mom, we took off running to St. Raphael’s Cathedral Grade School, about a mile away. At school, the BVM sisters and a few lay teachers provided excellent, if strict, instruction. Our lunch program was uninspiring, made up of surplus commodities (such as the driest peanut butter ever produced) and casseroles that were easily prepared in large quantities. We were not allowed to leave the cafeteria for recess until our plates were clean – not a hardship for me because, truthfully, it never occurred to me NOT to eat every bite I was served.
After school, my sister Chris, my brother Jeff and I would make our trek home. The good sisters at the Mary of the Angels Home liked little boys, so if Jeff went to the basement kitchen window they would sometimes hand him a treat – a homemade cookie fresh from the oven perhaps. Sometimes he even shared with his sisters! Then we’d stop at the Post Office, take the elevator to third floor, and drink from the hallway water fountain (the coldest water in town). A few blocks further along, we might stop at the corner bar where they had hard-pack ice-cream – if we had scrounged up a dime to purchase a cone, or if it was report card day (they gave us a free cone if we had A’s). Two doors down from the bar was a bakery. We stopped most days and asked after any “day olds” they wanted to get rid of. Sometimes they charged a reduced rate (a nickle for a snack pie) and sometimes they just gave them to us. Once, they gave me a whole pie because of my stellar report card.
At home, snacks were regulated, and were generally homemade. We always had to ask before helping ourselves to any food item. Some afternoons we were told to wait until dinner (which, if our begging up and down the streets on the way home had yielded few results, seemed almost unbearable). Dinners were always delicious, served relatively close to 5:30 p.m. Many times, they consisted of one pound of ground beef, a package of some sort of pasta, and a can of tomato sauce (remember, this entree served 8). There was always bread and butter and a canned veggie of some sort to round out the meal.
In the evenings, we didn’t always snack, though Mom or Dad would often pop up a roaster pan full of buttered popcorn. On special occasions, we got to split a bottle of Pepsi – one bottle, six kids. To make it appear that we had more pop in our glasses Dad simply added some water. We all considered it a special treat.
I’m not quite sure how my parents did it – feeding and clothing eight people on my dad’s salary, plus all the other expenses associated with management of our family’s life. We kids were aware that money was a concern, but it didn’t occur to us to think of ourselves as poor. And while there sometimes wasn’t enough food to feel completely satisfied, there was always more than enough to prevent us from experiencing real hunger. One time, a few years back, my siblings and I were reminiscing about our circuitous route home from school, and my brother Jeff suddenly exclaimed, “Oh my gosh – we were ragamuffins!” It was the first time it occurred to us that, perhaps, the kind people working at those businesses where we routinely stopped for handouts actually saw us as poor, hungry children in need of a handout. It was a humbling realization.
Which brings me back to this morning, and why I am hungry now. Last night, just before I was about to amble out to the kitchen and rustle up a snack after a late bike ride, I stumbled upon this report: Hunger In Our Schools. It’s a short report of a survey conducted with teachers and school principals, which discusses both what these professionals are seeing in their schools (73% of teachers say they teach students who regularly come to school hungry because there isn’t enough food at home; 87% of principals say they see hungry kids in their schools weekly) and what they are doing about it themselves – teachers and principals spending their salaries buying food for their students – on average $37 a month for teachers and $59 a month for principals who regularly see hungry kids in their schools.
The report talks about how difficult it is for students to be in school and hungry – the effect on attention, mood, alertness. I wondered, if I didn’t eat a late-night snack, and I didn’t eat in the morning until after I had written this blog post, how would I feel? So, that was my experiment this morning. Kind of silly, since I am not experiencing chronic hunger nor am I spending my morning in a structured environment. But the truth is, I am a little bit cranky. Even more, my brain is foggy and I’ve been easily distracted – which may be the hunger and may simply be me on a hot Thursday morning. But it is difficult to ignore the feeling of being hungry, even in this silly, short experiment. My stomach has my attention, meaning that I’ve already spent several hours on this post and I’m not done yet. I want to hurry it up, so I can eat.
The Hunger in Our Schools report, published by No Kid Hungry/Share Our Strengths, advocates for “Breakfast After the Bell” programs in schools, which have proven to increase school breakfast program participation and which remove the stigma associated with such programs. To me, these seem to be a great stop-gap measure, but they don’t really address the systemic reasons these children are hungry to begin with.
The World Hunger Organization provides a lot of great information. Their website says: “There are two key ways in which you and other people in the United States can help reduce hunger and poverty: understanding— this implies learning— and action. Action can take three key forms: influencing public policy, contributing financially, and working directly with poor people.” (World Hunger Notes)
In the past couple of weeks, I have loved watching the parade of “first day of school” pictures on my Facebook feed. I have enjoyed reading my teacher friends’ posts about getting their classrooms up and running, getting to know their new students. These posts point out that in the United States, such experiences are shared across socio-economic boundaries – by parents, teachers, and children in urban and rural, wealthy and poverty-stricken, public and private schools across the country. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we all did what is in our power to do to ensure that no kid sitting in a classroom tomorrow morning, or next week, is unable to focus due to hunger?
I am hungry for food right this minute. But, happily, this kind of hunger in my life is transitory and will soon be abated. I have a spiritual or moral hunger that is so much greater and more important. It needs to be fed a steady diet of compassion, understanding/learning, and action.