Culture Conscious

Growing Up Full

From the moment I stepped foot in Thailand to-well, literally an hour ago, myself and my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers have been showered with food non-stop. I mean, non. stop. people. re-dic-hue-lous. Ridiculous. Hue means hungry, just so we’re clear. I remember talking to my friends at home about how I was going to love Thailand because if Thai people aren’t eating food- they’re talking about the next time they’re gonna be. And seeing as I am quite the #Foodie myself, the endless opportunities to eat and talk about eating sounded thrilling.

Well, I loved it for like, a minute. Eh, that’s a complete lie- I still do. Even so, I never turn down a meal or snack when it is offered and will always ask what’s for dinner at lunch. I have been lucky enough to experience a culture that puts such emphasis on the idea of being full and happy; that the thought of living in hunger had never even crossed my mind.  I haven’t experienced the pains of hunger in these past two years.

I haven’t experienced them ever.

In the past, I’ve spent my Girl Scout days in soup kitchens, my sorority days doing community service, and have donated to yearly Christmas food drives. I’ve watched my mom donate to countless charities that benefit disadvantaged groups and the idea of giving was instilled in me from a young age. Yet, somehow the thought of being hungry still seemed so far from me. And clearly out of my hands. It wasn’t until I read Loretta Schwartz-Nobels, Growing Up Empty: How Federal Policies Are Starving America’s Children that I made some connections between my own country’s problem with the crippling number of children who go hungry everyday and the negative culture surrounding the families affected.

Schwartz-Nobels’ portrayal of hunger in America was eye-opening to say the least. She dove head first into the hidden slums of America’s South, city streets country-wide, and surprisingly enough- a number of army bases. Loretta, having had struggled with hunger in her past, felt it her life’s mission to research the causes of the vast number of hungry children in America who successfully fly under the radar. This “Hidden Hunger Epidemic” as she calls it, is something that America and its political policy makers have been hiding and ignoring for decades.

The book had a profound effect on me and thus encouraged me to conduct my own research. Growing Up Empty was published in 2003. So, one would hope that over the past thirteen years, some positive changes were made in public policy. One would hope that provided the astronomical numbers of hungry children in the year 2000, that by the beginning of 2017- the problem would have been cured. Alas, as I write this today- a staggering 3 million households in the United States will go hungry.

All this talk about hunger and food got me thinking. Why is hunger such an unresolved and concealed issue in the United States when in Thailand the problem is much less severe? Let’s do some comparisons, shall we? In list form- mainly cuz I’m lazy, and this is a blog post- not a book (yet?).

Thailand

  • Population: 67.96 million (2015)
  • In Thailand, 7.3 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line.
  • 8.5 percent of population struggle with hunger
  • The unemployment rate was 1.2 percent in October 2016

    United States of America

  • Population: 318.9 million (2014)
  • More than 45 million people, or 14.5 percent of all Americans live under the poverty line
  • 42.2 million Americans live in food-insecure households, including more than 13 million children
  • 13 percent of households (15.8 million households) were food insecure in 2015.
  • 1 in 6 people in America face hunger.
  • Hunger isn’t caused by a lack of food, but rather the continued prevalence of poverty.
  • The unemployment rate was 4.9 percent in August 2016

According to the Global Hunger Index from 2016, Thailand is in the ‘Moderate’ category of hunger with a score of 11.8. As specified on the index, the United States of America is categorized as an “Industrialized Nation”. Thus, no information regarding hunger is presented. This small lack of data, threw me for a loop. The obvious omission shows the complete lack of concern. Wait, that’s too negative. maybe they forgot, right? I think many people just assume that because the U.S.A. is a developed nation and a strong leader in the global economy and political environment, that hunger just can’t be an issue.

You’ve seen some statistics, which may or may not prove anything to you, but let me talk about some cultural things I’ve seen over the past two years in Thailand. In a country filled with a 95% Buddhist following, the lifestyle takes up a large amount of time and it is totally ingrained into daily life. Each week there is a wan prat, meaning monk day. On these days, families give rice and other foods to the monks who walk through the villages barefoot. On top of these monk days, there are several holidays, and boy do I mean several. On each holiday, patronage is paid to Buddha, by way of rice or money so that the monks can continue their work and healthy lives.

Why does this fact matter?

Because giving is part of daily life here. Giving to those who have less, helping your friends, and eating together. Each day at my small rural school, the students recite a prayer to the farmers who grow the rice. The little ones thank the farmers and Mother Earth for their hard work and recognize the effort put forth by their parents, their friends, and their nation to provide each meal. There is always food to go around, and if someone does not have rice or something to eat with their rice, that problem is quickly resolved…no matter your age, gender, upbringing or ailment.

Thai youth are generally taught or learn first hand that they can eat most things that grow naturally. Although this is not always true, luckily a large portion of plants here are edible. The point is, Thai people have the knowledge to survive on whatever means that they have, whether it is living off the land, going to the local temple or community center, going to their families, and so on. They always know that food is available, and there is no cultural stigma directed at people who need food…unlike the United States of America.

It is difficult to discuss anything of social importance in the United States. There is always a right and wrong, left and right, good and bad. It is all a complicated political show, that enables people to put others into categories, discriminate, judge and perpetuate hate. We, (I am including myself, so put down the shade for a second) largely hate being told we are wrong and have a hard time looking from others perspectives. We are paranoid, stubborn, individualistic and proud.

See the photo above? It’s from Chicago, 1930 (i.e. The Great Depression, have you heard of it?). This photo presents the idea that many Americans have about the hungry population. First off, that there aren’t any anymore. Secondly, that those hungry that are left – are all unemployed. Both assumptions are unfortunately false and it affects many more than we think. Hunger reaches every demographic in America, many of whom we would never guess are hungry because pride and the stigma surrounding hunger in America get in the way. Our culture teaches us to be self reliant and if we can not provide for ourselves and our families, we are presumed failures. We are taught to do it alone.

However, the idea of “charity” is well integrated into our minds. Come the holidays, hunger is a huge issue for everyone! We simply can’t imagine any American family going without a turkey and cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving. Every child brings home a list of non perishables to be donated for their schools holiday food drive. But what then? Americans have one day of giving. They do their part for a day, they feel good about helping the “less fortunate”, and they have done their good deed. Hallehluya!

This misguided mindset allows Americans to forget about the massive problem affecting millions for the other 364 days a year. Thus, we are stuck with a growing population of hungry families and soup kitchens, food pantries, and homeless shelters that simply can not provide. Donations in America tend to come in chunks: Thanksgiving, Christmas, any natural disaster, and large scale devastations ensue wide spread
“Take my money!” conversations, huge tax writeoffs for the wealthy, and pop star’s ‘good guy’ personifications. I mean, you’ve seen those Sarah Mclachlan commercials about the dogs, right? It’s just like that, except for humans. I know, you’ve seen those commercials, and I know you’ve cried. No sense in denying it. Anyways, all of this one time deal type of stuff, that keeps us just far enough away from the issue; versus Thailand’s overwhelming consistency and hands on approach. Hmmm, makes ya think huh?

Although America is the land of plenty and there are plenty of people with excess, there are hungry people hidden in pockets throughout the country. Hidden in the middle class, hidden in migrant youth, hidden in military families, and so on. Those hungry in the immigrant populace suffer the same starving days, but in many cases have a much different story than that of the “unemployed, lazy bum” that is glued pretty well into many minds. This story leaves many feeling unwelcome, poor, often hungry, and nonetheless- outsiders.

For stance, the story about a Cambodian woman named Chea that Schwartz-Nobels referenced in Growing Up Empty. She had left her war stricken country behind to seek a better life in the United States, much like many other migrants and refugees over the years. She fell under the poverty level, which is easier to do than we are programmed to think, just to reiterate. Although Chea and her children were living off of food stamps, barely surpassing fifty dollars a month, she knew what to buy to feed her family. She could buy a month’s worth of rice for fifteen dollars. That was definitely a start. She knew what to buy on a limited budget due to her own cultural food practices.

Which brings me to, you guessed it, right back to Thailand. Did you look at the statistics up there? I mean, it’s ok if you didn’t; numbers, math, etc. But, at first glance the numbers- they seem kinda close, and seeing as Thailand has about 4.6% of the population in America, a lot of people here live under the predetermined poverty line. My region in particular, has many poverty stricken areas. But, like I said- fewer people go hungry. Chea knew how to survive. She knew how to budget her money effectively to provide semi-substantial meals for her and her kids. This was learned via her Cambodian heritage.

Now, I don’t want to swift blame onto those in need- that is not my goal. However, in my opinion- with proper education about what to buy, where to get food, and what is edible in nature, maybe the problem would lessen. Americans tend to fear things that are not available in grocery stores. If it is not provided for them, how will they know if it is edible or poisonous? Another issue is accessibility and quite honestly, growing season. In Thailand the growing season is year round, whereas American climates vary and don’t provide constant growing conditions. Soup kitchens are not easily accessible for most either. They are few and far between, not present in all towns, and do not have enough resources to feed all the hungry. Whereas, if we compare that to the temples in Thailand, that are on literally every block, the access is there, the food, the help, the knowledge. It is all there.

So what do we do?

The American hunger epidemic statistically saw a decline in 2014, but there is still much work to be done. This work, largely for food banks, the WIC, and other non-profit organizations and hopefully the general American public is non-stop. The answer lays of course in policy, but also in public opinion, education, and awareness. This is just a comparative piece. Just some things I’ve noticed and wanted to share with you. I think that if we change the discussion, forget about our pride, and think more consistently- we can end hunger in America. I mean, folks, we can end hunger on Earth, but we need to talk about it. We need to see how others tackle the problem, what works and what doesn’t. It is time to put down the stigmas, the political drama, and start seeing a generation that is growing up full.

Just some food for thought.

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