On my first day of fasting, I learned some things. First, a hectic day at work is far less exhausting if you eat. Second, food seems to be everywhere. And finally, hunger is lonely.
The effects of fasting are both expected and unexpected. Headache, I expected, as well as the growly stomach. I didn’t expect to be freezing all day (even sitting in front of a heater). Or to feel depressed. Not just diva-level crankiness, but a real feeling of depression. After just 24 hours, the effects are pretty noticeable.
The consequences of chronic hunger – insufficient nutrition or reduced food intake – are far more serious. Malnourishment can negatively affect pregnancy, resulting in low birth weight and contributing to infant mortality. It can increase vulnerability to illness and infection, as well as severe dehydration. For children, malnourishment can prevent proper physical and brain development.
I am hungry by choice. I could walk into the kitchen and make an egg sandwich. Or banana bread. Or chicken cacciatore. Or. . . (uggh!)
But if I had no money for food, it would be torture to see all the food available but out of reach. Commercials, newspaper ads, restaurant fronts, grocery stores, break rooms at work – food is everywhere in abundance. But that abundance isn’t available to everyone.
In Juneau, milk can range from $3.39-$6.49 a gallon, depending on sales and coupons. A loaf of sandwich bread is $4.29. Cereal is $4.49 or more a box. Apples, pears, oranges, and tomatoes can be had for under $2.00 a pound. Bananas are less. Peppers and other vegetables are more. Fresh meat is $3.49 or more a pound; frozen is a little less expensive. A full time minimum wage job here nets less than $1,000/month. Working poor families just can’t cover the cost of food and housing and other basic needs.
There are some sources of food that don’t depend on federal and state programs like food stamps or WIC. One is food banks, supported by hunger relief charities like Feeding America. They are supported by local folks (like me) who donate food or money, and by local community organizations. Just recently, our Rotary Clubs gathered 801 pounds of food for our food bank. Millions of poor Americans, families and seniors depend on food banks to eat.
But food banks aren’t always an option. If someone is disabled and can’t get to the food bank, or has special dietary needs, they have to rely on other programs. In Anchorage, the Mabel T. Caverly Senior Center just sent out a call for help for two seniors in just these sorts of dire straits. One is homebound, and one has strict dietary restrictions. The senior center’s own program that would fill in this gap has been so taxed by the increased demand this year, there are no funds available to help feed these seniors. (If you’re moved to help, contact Mabel T. Caverly Senior Center at firstname.lastname@example.org). Congregate meals at senior centers or soup kitchens and Meals-on-Wheels help these folks – but these programs depend on the very programs that are being targeted for reductions to balance the federal budget.
And that’s where you see that hunger is lonely. For a homebound senior, the loss of that daily Meals-on-Wheels delivery is more than the loss of a meal. It’s the loss of a visit with someone who cares. For a child with no lunch to bring to school and no money to buy lunch, the cafeteria is a shameful place without the subsidized school lunch program.
There may be millions of people going to bed hungry tonight, just like me, but it still feels like I’m all alone.