I remember when I was younger, my grandfather would tell me stories about the Great Depression and what it was like to not have much – if anything – to eat.
Early on, he impressed upon me that I shouldn’t waste food. And he certainly shamed you if you did. When I talked too much at the dinner table – frequently a problem for me – he would say, “If you talk at the table, you talk to the devil.” That’s how serious he was about appreciating the food you had.
While that practice might explain why I had a very chubby adolescence, I never really put too much thought into having the ability to receive three solid meals per day. Food was an afterthought because it was a guarantee.
Until it wasn’t.
For the first time in my life last week, I felt the anxiety of not knowing how I was going to secure food. All online delivery times from Whole Foods, Fresh Direct, Amazon Direct, and Instacart were sold out for weeks. I wondered if I should risk going to the supermarket and getting sick or worse getting someone else sick. As this back-and-forth argument took place in my head, I could not focus on anything else but it.
Let me be clear: this does not mean that I know what it feels like to go hungry or to wait on a food pantry line or not to have enough money to eat. I was able to go to the local grocery store early enough to avoid any lines or people really, and I purchased what I needed. Yet, the experience got me thinking for the first time in my life about how hunger affects one’s ability to think – more specifically, our students’ ability to focus.
What I didn’t realize was just how many of our New York City school children are going hungry – nearly one out of every five, according to City Harvest.
Let that number settle in: nearly one out of every five NYC school children are going hungry. That means one out of every five starters on the basketball team, one out of every five kids in a group project, one out of every five clarinet players in the band. These are all real kids who have to negotiate the stress of not knowing where their next meal is coming from with growing up, fitting in, learning, and doing their best.
This is why “free” school breakfast and lunch programs are so important, disregarding for a moment the MONUMENTAL amount of food and money that are wasted in these programs (we’ll circle back on this next week).
Uniformly providing “free” food for all students eliminates the stigma of everyone know you can’t afford school lunch. That’s how it was when I was growing up. I can still remember the names of the kids who received free lunch – everyone knew who they were; the poor kids – subconsciously singled out as unable, incapable, less-than.
Hunger is a symptom of poverty. And just like hunger, poverty is one of those issues that people talk about and you nod your head as if you get it and then you go back to your insulated, comfortable life and don’t think about it again.
The effects of poverty on our children is damaging, though, according to a 2017 Cornell University report by researcher Gary Evans: “‘With poverty, you’re exposed to lots of stress. Everybody has stress, but low-income families, low-income children, have a lot more of it,’ Evans said. ‘And the parents are also under a lot of stress. So for kids, there is a cumulative risk exposure.'”
Now, I know some might want to blame the people who find themselves in these situations. Hasty generalizations where we cite poor choices, ignorance, drug and alcohol dependence and general bad parenting allow us to absolve our consciences. Because, after all, if this is someone else’s problem, we don’t have to worry about it, right? I definitely fell into that category in the not too distant past.
Yet, the more you interact with people of lower socioeconomic backgrounds, the more human the issue becomes. You start to realize that so many who find themselves on government assistance or with limited resources to provide for their families have been victimized by a system of inequality. This system – highlighted by lack of healthy, affordable food options; poor, failing schools; and lack of quality employment offerings, to name a few – represents a cavernous void of opportunity. Furthermore, contrary to stereotypes, not many actually WANT a handout. In reality, they would much rather a chance to earn, a chance to make their own way, and ultimately a chance to prosper.
That’s not an indictment of people who hurt and feel shame the same way regardless of how much money they have; that’s an indictment of a system that allows for some of its people to wallow in the same bleak position for generations.
During this time of uncertainty, so many millions are out of work and without the means to make money, pay the bills and put food on the table. My hope is that we do not ignore those who are struggling now, but more importantly my hope is that we do not forget about their struggles when all this is said and done.
The fact is that they were struggling long before the pandemic, and they will continue to struggle long after it unless we provide real opportunities (and by real, I do not mean reparations or free-college-for-all because those are political parlor tricks, nothing more than talking points to secure votes).
To learn more about City Harvest.