Eat on the Street: Battling Daily Hunger

daily breadOften, people out here with me don’t eat regularly, sometimes nothing for days, because they don’t have access to food or money to buy it.

At times, I haven’t either but, by comparison, I’ve been lucky: The longest I went without eating was two days, although it’s happened several times. Once, when a friend found out, she had a whole chicken with potatoes, salad and vegetables delivered from a restaurant, which I stretched into three meals. Another time, I was sent a pizza. An acquaintance brought me a Thai chicken salad one night. Other days I went hungry, like millions sharing my plight, because food bank shelves were empty or places serving meals were “sold out.”

While shelters, charities and religious groups offer free meals, demand constantly out-strips supply.

“If I had the food and the space, I could feed three times as many people as I do,” Mary-Louise Spencer, supervisor of a free lunch program at a Unitarian church, said after I’d eaten a bowl of chili and a cheese-and-bologna sandwich one noon. It was my only meal that day. “We’re serving triple the number of people of a few years ago.”

Food banks are just as over-stretched.

“I’d guess that we hand out about 15 tons of groceries a week,” said Damon Renfrew, a worker at the free pantry. He’d stopped unpacking cartons of dented canned goods donated by a Pennsylvania wholesaler long enough to speak with me. “We could give away 20 if we had the stock.”

Roughly one-in-seven children and an even higher percentage of adults in America lack food security. A few years ago, United Way ran a fundraising spot on TV highlighting people who are forced to choose between buying food and paying rent. So the question isn’t whether hunger is a problem but why it exists in a wealthy, overweight nation.

No Soup For You!

People who can’t afford or find food are balanced precariously at the very bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Yet our growling stomachs are heard by Rep. Paul Ryan, the Ayn Rand-loving GOP budget zombie, who cut food stamp and other assistance programs so people who are hungry have an even tougher time feeding themselves and their families.

Ryan and his colleagues on the right are like the churlish Soup Nazi on “Seinfeld,” except the Republican mantra is “No food for you!”

“How do Republicans say to somebody who hasn’t eaten today that they won’t be hungry anymore once Mitt Romney gets another tax cut?” asked Jake Landow, a social activist in upstate New York. “I couldn’t face myself if I lied like that.”

Many hungry and homeless people are suffering today because of the Great Recession, brought on by greedy Republican economic, financial, regulatory and tax policies dating back to Reagan and culminating with Bush The Younger. And because of voter suppression laws passed by GOP legislatures, it’s become nearly impossible for us to vote in many states, trying to change policies. We may lack a permanent address for registering, or might not have money to get an acceptable ID. So the hungry homeless can’t vote the righteous right out of office. Republicans know this; indeed, they count on it which is why they’re making it so difficult for so many of us to vote.

Festering Sore

It doesn’t have to be like this.

When I was a kid in the 1960s, a combination of an aggressive news media, a determined Lyndon Johnson and a Congress that knew doing the right thing wasn’t about party politics and the next election, set about trying to fix the problem of hunger and homelessness in America.

I remember watching “CBS Reports” with my parents as it told haunting stories about millions of Americans who were hungry. “Life” magazine, which arrived in the mail every week, explored different aspects of the same tragedy. I recall a school assignment that had us watch Pres. Johnson’s Great Society speech to Congress with its declaration of war on poverty, followed by the class discussing the issues he raised. I saw photos of leaders of both parties gathered around LBJ as he signed vast amounts of social legislation that Congress passed without rancor. Bobby Kennedy’s star-crossed 1968 campaign kept a spotlight on the poor by taking national reporters to West Virginia shanty towns.

Not since RFK can I recall a national politician sitting down with people who lived in tarpaper shacks to draw widespread attention to their plight.

Not every Great Society or War On Poverty program worked; a few failed miserably although most succeeded. That’s not the point. The point is that politicians and the country – including Republicans – had the courage to try fixing a disgraceful problem that, 50 years later, remains a festering national sore.

Today, instead of a war on poverty, America has a Republican-launched war on the helpless.

The GOP believes pregnant women should pay for tax cuts, and children can do without health care to fund the Pentagon. John Boehner cuts Medicare so oil companies – the richest businesses the world ever created – can receive billions in unneeded tax subsidies. Mitch McConnell kills jobs programs to keep the Koch Bros. taxes criminally low. The House tea party caucus replaces food aid for the hungry with loosened regulations for polluters. Republican governors destroy their state’s middle class with union busting laws so they can hand out goodies to their corporate backers paid for with money supposedly saved by ruining people’s lives.

This is how America treats people on the bottom rung; I see and live it every day. As Jake Landow put it, “That ain’t the America I grew up in.”

Charley James

Author and journalist Charley James’ next book is about his experience becoming homeless. When published, Charley will donate a percentage of his advance and royalties to homeless organizations.

More articles by Charley James

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  1. says

    Truth is essential, Mr. James; thank you for sharing it.  While the far-right go further right, it Hungers for more and more of what it has already devoured.  And, while the commoners Hunger for what was once familiar in a “modern” society, they begin to realize that the salvos (veiled in austerity) from vultures hellbent on endless feeding will never cease – even when all progress since the darkest age is overturned.

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