This year at Christmas I had the opportunity to buy one of my gift recipients a large amount of food. Nothing says Christmas to a starving college student like a 50-pound bag of rice. As I was trundling my wheeled grocery conveyance through the parking lot of the local purveyor of bulk comestibles and loading said bounty into the trunk of my car, it occurred to me just how ludicrously cheap food is in this country. To the savvy and tolerant shopper one really can live on next to nothing. It is a certainty that the fare available for the cheapest prices is neither particularly tasty nor diverse in character but it is nutritious and more than sufficient to sustain life.
As this thought was floating though my head, the contrary thought arose that there are still, even in this country of economical food, many, many people who go to bed hungry each night. For many when the weather turns cold it is literally a choice between “heating and eating”. How can these contradictory facts co-exist? How can people be hungry in a nation where food is so cheap and so readily available to everyone? I think the answer lies in at least three factors.
The first factor is purely an economical one. I went to the store prepared to spend whatever it took to amass the needed food. If the price had been twice as much, I would have come home with the same amount because the goal was to purchase a certain amount of food rather spend a certain amount of money. So if the bill was $50 or $100 was largely irrelevant. Unfortunately, this is a luxury not afforded to those in straitened financial conditions. More often the amount to be spent is not only much less but absolutely fixed. When one has $20 and 3 hungry children to feed between now and payday, the choices are much different. No one in danger of hunger is likely to buy a 50-pound bag of rice. This is unfortunate since the larger bag is likely to be several times more economical in the long run than the smaller one. To those in poverty, however, the ability to invest in the future by buying the larger container is much more difficult.
The second factor is that of transportation. For my shopping I simply packed everything into the trunk and drove home. It was as simple as that. Imagine though if I had to take the bus with my shopping. Heaving a large bag of rice on the bus is well nigh impossible and may be utterly unthinkable if small children are in tow as well. Even if a parent has the knowledge and resources to buy the larger container they’ll be hard pressed to get it home.
The third factor, and the one most consistently ignored by those who address the problem of poverty, is education. I can go to the store and buy a month’s worth of food because I know what to do with it. For parents whose primary sources of food are pre-packaged and highly processed, a bag of rice and beans isn’t a particularly intuitive source of nutrition. If you’ve never cooked before, cooking can be an exceptionally daunting task. Further, many shoppers don’t realize the economic benefits of buying foods packaged in a particular way. It is somewhat counter-intuitive to think that a large container of food which costs more is actually more economical than many small ones. Those in poverty who haven’t had the experience and education to guide them in this way perpetuate their economic positions through simple lack of knowledge.
Traditionally in this country our favorite mechanism for dealing with the hungry is to simply throw money at the people who are hungry. Clearly though this only addresses a third of the problem. Even if we give them the money to shop more frugally that is no guarantee that they will do so. To be effective in combating the problem of hunger we not only have to provide but also educate. This is a task at which churches and grass-roots organizations excel and at which governments traditionally fail miserably. We need as a society to stop just giving money and instead give our time and energy to educate those around us who lack the basic knowledge of personal and household economics to run their lives in an efficient manner that will eventually draw them up from poverty and make their lives better. Ultimately, those are lessons that are self-perpetuating and the benefits will be seen for generations and generations to come if only we make the investment of ourselves now.