“I’m SO hungry I could die!”
The words ring out regularly, from everyone’s mouth. We’ve all said them, and somewhere inside us, we feel them to be true. But in this country, sadly, far too many people know them as truth, and not folly. Far too many people understand what true hunger is, to not have enough to eat, to feel the twisting agony of real hunger as they lay in the dark night; to open cupboards, the refrigerator and see nothing for sustenance or thirst.
And I know. Because I’ve been one of them. I rarely utter the words ‘I’m starving.’ because I know that I’m not. My body isn’t consuming it’s own muscle to survive. It’s not devouring it’s own organs. It isn’t shutting down for lack of nutrients. That is true starvation. You’re not starving when it’s been only a few hours since your last meal. You aren’t starving when your refrigerator and pantry are full.
I don’t ever talk about certain aspects of my past here. I don’t recount the troubled days I’ve spent before ironing out life’s wrinkles and finding the right path to follow. I can’t. I’m very blessed to have been lifted from that time of my life, but I will not forget what it was like.
My son was just a baby, really. Barely two, with a tummy no bigger than my fist. He didn’t need much then, and that was the blessing. There wasn’t much, quite frankly, and often it was enough for him, but not nearly enough for me. I’d eat what he didn’t, then smile and clean the meager dishes while he played in the tiny apartment we lived in that took more than half of my monthly income in rent. If we were lucky, the drunks in the next unit were quiet that night, and we could sleep easier. Or I could anyway. My little boy, blessedly, slept through much of the ranting tirades that would erupt at all hours from the room on the other side of our bedroom wall. I would jolt awake, heart pounding. Only then, in the deep night, listening to his breathing in the bed next to me, the pain would start inside. Gnawing at me, pulling at my ribs. Often a sour taste would form in my mouth from the excessive stomach acid as my body called out to me for food. I’d rise for a drink of water; anything to try and stop the pain. Digging through empty cupboards one bare night, wrapped in a quilt against the chill, I took a half sleeve of saltine crackers that I’d been saving. They were so dry in my mouth and the only thing in the refrigerator that was deemed even edible was a partial bottle of ketchup. I squirted a bit of ketchup on the cracker and pushed it in my mouth, ignoring the taste. A shake of black pepper seemed to help, but even when the half sleeve of crackers was gone, and I’d washed the taste of it from my mouth, I was still so hungry that I felt faint. In the dark, with my baby asleep barely 10 feet away, I felt the tears, again. ‘I shouldn’t be living like this.’ I whispered to myself.
It wasn’t every day, but there were lean times, over a pretty tough year, that felt interminable. After the rent was paid, the laundry money and bus fare set aside, the small bills that were due, there often wasn’t much left, especially at the end of the month, where I needed to stretch to cover the rent. And then….. well, those two weeks until I was paid again were the worst of all. I was thankful that I had daily tips to supplement, but many months, that hunger that gnawed inside of me was a constant reminder of a situation I was living through that I couldn’t even have imagined. Here we were, in a fattening country, surrounded by more food choices than any other in the world, and our bellies were empty.
I’d left a bad relationship. I was struggling with some emotional issues and strongholds, and trying to figure out where my life was going. Family stepped in to help, covering costs that I couldn’t. The cheap apartment with the awful neighbors was all I could afford. The only way we survived that scarce time was the daycare that provided my boy with two solid meals a day, and the warm and loving woman who ran it that occasionally pushed a paper bag of leftovers in my hands as I picked up my boy. She saw it in my face, the hollow cheeks and pockets around my eyes, the gaunt arms and legs. She knew, even though she never said a word to me. The small coffee shop where I worked for barely minimum wage allowed us to buy the day-old pastries for fifty cents, and if anything was left when I arrived, I’d set it aside and with my first tips I’d have something, anyway, which provided me with a bit of breakfast as I sipped my coffee. But I was wasting away, the smallest size I’ve ever been in my adult life. People told me how great I looked. I just smiled and said nothing. I didn’t feel great. Most of what I recall from that year was a blinding numbness.
The lease from hell ended, and I moved to a much nicer place. I fought for control of my life, got a better job with a bigger paycheck and swiftly climbed out of that hole I’d sunk in to, filling our refrigerator and cupboards with good food and even having enough to take my little boy out for pizza, or a burger. I bought a car. We thrived.
But what I didn’t do was forget.
To this day, I can’t eat ketchup without thinking of that awful and empty night. I’ve gone through times where I’ve fought an almost obsessive need to keep a lot of food on hand.
And I have never, ever taken one bite of food for granted.
I’ve never shunned a meal due to any reason because I can’t forget what it was like to not have enough. To lay hungry in the night. To walk past trash cans spilling over with half eaten foods, to see food thrown out, to hear people say “I’m STARVING!” as if they had any idea what that’s like, and me trying to focus the meager tips I made on purchasing something decent for my boy and I to eat when the bank account was bare.
“Why you no eat, Mama?” My little tiny boy said to me one night at dinner, while he ate the small amount of food I was able to make. Smiling, I rubbed his back. “I’m not that hungry, sweetheart.” I said, secretly hoping he’d leave a few bites for me. But he cleaned his plate, like I’d taught him to do. And I went to bed with a hollow belly. Again.
If you have food in your cupboards and refrigerator, and if you never wonder where your next meal will come from; if you can snack when the urge hits you, walk in to a coffee shop and purchase a baked good, go out to lunch on a whim, and dine out at nice restaurants, consider yourself among the most fortunate in this country. Many people can’t do that. Too many people can’t afford those big and expensive daily lattes, eating lunch out, or, quite frankly, having a home-cooked meal every night, much less stopping for take-out. The foods they purchase are cheap and inexpensive, and lacking nutrition. More and more, families in our country subsist on food assistance that only barely gets them by.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world;
indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” ~~Margaret Mead
Would you allow it to resonate deep within you? Spur you to change your habits?
Would you ever consider going without your latte fix every day and donate that money to Share Our Strength?
Would you please stop using the words ‘I’m starving.’??
Because I’m betting that many of you, or all of you reading this truly have no idea what that feels like. And I’m so glad that you don’t.
Affordable, healthy recipes for those lean times: