For most of us, the image of hunger is that of a small, visibly malnourished child, with an extended belly and bulging eyes, tragically suffering his incomprehensible destiny in a safely distant land.
But we don’t have to look far to “see” the face of hunger or to hear the stories of the hungry in our midst. Hunger hides, barely, if we only bother to look and pay attention, right here in our community, only minutes from the comfort of our own home.
There are almost one million people in South Florida who struggle every day to put food on their table. For one of every four children who go to bed hungry, their school meal is their only meal for the day. Almost 150,000 seniors on fixed incomes have to choose between paying for medication or buying groceries. And single working mothers, some of them nurses I’ve met in our public hospitals, eat patients’ leftovers because they can’t afford to buy lunch.
How can that be — in this country? It is truly a scandal that in this wealthy community hard-working individuals who often work two jobs, living paycheck to paycheck, struggle daily to provide food for their families. And yet very few people seem to know the problem exists.
I first became involved in the fight to end hunger when I was filming a short documentary for Feeding South Florida. I met a young mother my age who worked as a clerk at an accounting office. She had four young children, and her husband had left her. She had taken a second job cleaning hotel rooms, but in spite of the two jobs — she was balancing daycare bills, medical expenses, rent, transportation — she couldn’t make ends meet.
Her choice — alternate days feeding her four children.
I happened to be going through a divorce with a young child. I looked at her and realized: that could be me. There, but for the grace of God, go I.
As I began to know her better, I learned she was embarrassed to collect her one bag of groceries for the week. She wasn’t this “welfare mom” that we stereotype and condemn in this country; she was not the lazy, weak, “milk the system” individual so often demonized by those who prefer to look at poverty from a distance. Her condition did not result from any moral failure on her part. She was working 70 hours a week, at minimum-wage jobs, and couldn’t bridge the gap between her income, and the cost of living.
Now, four years later, slowly recovering from this recession that has affected most of us, the reality of poverty and hunger in our community has only gotten worse. And yet, it doesn’t have to be that way.
We have the resources to feed the hungry. We live in a consumer-driven society that throws away almost 30 percent of all retail food. We live in a state that throws away hundreds of millions of pounds of fresh produce yearly — yet some people turn a basic need like food into a political issue or think that hunger doesn’t exist in this country.
Unfortunately, 50 million Americans struggle to put food on the table every day — one million of them right here in South Florida. Various local organizations, public and private, including grocery store chains and several restaurants, donate food year-round, but more partners are needed to keep up with the tremendous need.
We cross paths with the hungry everyday, often not recognizing who they are. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We have the resources to ensure that no one goes hungry, especially children. We produce enough to ensure that every man, woman and child in our community gets fed, yet the state government has cut back on worthwhile USDA programs.
This is an issue of sheer humanity, compassion and helping our neighbor. Our fundamental values as a caring community and nation are at stake. Let’s open our eyes and lend a hand.
Diana Brooks is owner and managing partner of VSBrooks Advertising in Miami and serves as board chair of Feeding South Florida, the largest domestic hunger relief organization partnering with other non-profits to provide meals to families in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe counties.