April 17, 2020 | By Roger Thurow

America's Oxymoron

It didn’t take long for the coronavirus to expose America’s shameful secret: hunger amid abundance. 

We as a nation hold tight to the belief that this is a land of everlasting bounty, with amber waves of grain rolling across the fruited plain from sea to shining sea.  Indeed, God shed His Grace on thee, America.  From these rich soils, we feed the world.  There’s no hunger to see here, certainly not. 

Until a crisis comes along, be it a hurricane, a flood, a drought, and now the coronavirus pandemic.  Now we see the long lines at food pantries, the desperate appeals of the food banks to replenish dwindling supplies, the scramble to replace the free breakfast and lunch programs for children once the schools shut down, the mad dash to grab whatever remains on the shelves at the grocery stores.  All of this has been exacerbated by the economic slowdown, the soaring unemployment rates, the deepening poverty and inequality triggered by the pandemic. 

It was to be expected that this global health crisis would turn into a hunger crisis in some parts of the world, perhaps Africa or India.  But in America?  We are shocked.  Shocked! 

Truth is, the food panty lines are always there, the food bank shelves are always in need of replenishing, the roll call of students eligible for free meals at school is always growing.  But beyond times of crisis, we don’t want to look and acknowledge that the “world’s breadbasket” can’t even fully nourish all of its own citizens. 

Hunger has been part of the nation’s history since starvation nearly wiped out the Jamestown settlement back in 1610.  Today, even before the coronavirus crisis, food insecurity is all around us, in places we would least expect.  On our university campuses, on our military bases, on our farms, in our neighborhoods, in about 14 million households.  In 2019, the government reports, nearly 38 million individuals participated in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the nation’s anti-hunger program.  

Hunger was even in the room during last year’s Heisman Trophy ceremony honoring the best college football player in all the land, when Joe Burrow, the quarterback of the national championship team, accepted the award with a shoutout to his home community back in Ohio, saying, “I’m up here for all those kids in Athens and in Athens County that go home to not a lot of food on the table, hungry after school.”  

Big-hearted people responded to that mention with a flood of donations to the local food bank.  It is what we do remarkably well as Americans.  We share our cans of beans, jars of peanut butter, boxes of pasta, whatever we can spare.  We respond to the humanitarian need, but the chronic condition remains for lack of steadfast attention and long-term solutions.  Instead, we have, blessedly, a Feeding America network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs stretching from sea to shining sea, serving one in seven Americans – and that was before the coronavirus crisis unleased a tidal wave of new demand. 

Ever since I walked into an emergency feeding tent filled with dozens of starving children during the Ethiopian famine of 2003, I have been writing about global hunger and how we brought this medieval suffering with us into the 21st Century.  Reporting in Africa, I have noted the continent’s cruelest irony: Africa’s hungriest people are her smallholder farmers who annually descend into the profound deprivation of a hunger season while waiting for the new harvest to arrive.  What an absurd, obscene oxymoron: Hungry Farmers.  Those two words don’t belong together.  How can farmers be hungry? 

On one reporting trip abroad, an American relief worker who had toiled in many hunger crises around the globe suggested I should write about hunger at home.  When I eventually moved back to the United States, I decided to do just that. 

What I saw was this country’s oxymoron: Hungry Americans.  Those two words don’t belong together.  How can residents of the world’s richest country be hungry? 

Fortunately, here we don’t see the awful starvation of famine.  Rather, here the food insecurity is born of poverty, fragile incomes, social inequality, and sudden disruption, the desperation of not knowing where the next meal might come from. 

I have heard stories from teachers of children running into school on Monday mornings, rushing straight to the cafeteria for the breakfast program, because they hadn’t had a hot meal since Friday lunch; of students stuffing lunch into their backpacks, even spaghetti, in case there would be no dinner at home.  I visited a food pantry set up like a grocery store; instead of clients being handed a bag of food, they could select items from the shelves.  Instructions were taped to the shelves: for instance, choose only two of the available items.  Families debated whether to take the pasta or the rice, beans or peas, cereal or bread.  Such heartbreaking choices, in America? 

Now, with the economic and social shock of the coronavirus disrupting food supply chains and interrupting reliable demand from schools, restaurants and businesses, we see the tragic irony of farmers plowing under crops in their fields, despite a growing desperation of many people for food.  In every hunger crisis I’ve covered, there is always surplus food somewhere in the country or the region, but it doesn’t get to the hungry because the old economic equation of supply and demand misfires.  I’ve seen this in Africa.  Now we see it in America, too. 

One day soon, hopefully, a vaccine will be found, this virus will be corralled, and people will get back to work.  A new American normal will dawn.  Will hunger still be a part of it? 

About

The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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