Notes from an emergency room doctor: It's the
holiday season, a time for giving - and for receiving.
Likely you'll be able to enjoy your holiday gift
for days, or weeks, or even years to come. But
for some, the best gift of the holidays will be
a warm meal and a full belly, which will all too
soon be just a memory.
In our land of fast food, Big Macs, and free
samples, Americans rarely suffer the kind of hunger
that we're used to seeing in places like Ethiopia
or Somalia. There you see emaciated children that
resemble death camp skeletons or those whose stomachs
bloated from a protein deficiency disease called
kwashiorkor. But nevertheless, Americans too suffer
hunger, and suffer from the diseases associated
Though anyone of any age can be hungry and suffer
from malnutrition, the groups at particular risk
are: pregnant women and their developing fetuses;
babies because good nutrition is needed to support
rapid brain growth; and the elderly because aging
makes the body more susceptible to disease and
poor nutrition increases that susceptibility.
The fact that American hunger is not as prevalent
or dramatic as it is in the poor nations of the
world makes it insidious, more likely to be overlooked.
But studies estimate that more than 20 million
Americans suffer from hunger at least some days
each month. The most serious consequences of hunger
have been kept at bay by school lunch and breakfast
programs, the WIC program (a feeding program for
poor pregnant and nursing women and their children
under five years of age), and food stamps. But
all these programs are at risk or have already
been curtailed in government's frenzy to budget
cut. America's "safety net" is deteriorating,
and the poor who receive government assistance
have experienced a progressive drop in the purchasing
power of their benefits over the last two decades.
Hunger is not a problem of just homeless bums,
psychotics, or alcoholics. It is a family problem.
Today, if you become unemployed and have exhausted
all your unemployment benefits, you and your family
are ineligible for further assistance in over
half the states of this nation. Even if you are
among the "eligible" poor who receive
government food assistance that help amounts to
less than the cost of a candy bar per meal.
Many feel that "state charity" should
end, preferring to leave the job of feeding the
poor to "public charity" and public
conscience. There is also a pervasive anger among
many who perceive that the government's system
of "hand-outs" is being abused. It's
easy to understand how someone's charitable nature
can quickly be cut down while they stand at a
check-out line watching someone else using food
stamps to buy T-bones and expensive snacks that
they can't afford.
Recently my neighbor's children came by soliciting
for canned food for the homeless. My own family
will be busy along with dozens of others serving
a Christmas Day feast at the local high school.
But it's unfortunate that people don't eat like
snakes, devouring huge meals at three month intervals.
If we did, then our attention to feeding the hungry,
which seems to arise at intervals like Thanksgiving
and Christmas, might provide a reasonable solution
to the problem. But people are not snakes. And
hunger is not going away in our land of plenty.
Unless our charitable conscience can be stretched
beyond the "holidays," government needs
to remain in the business of treating hunger,
even if there are a few undeserving folk who have
their hands out. It's unfortunate that greed is
an American sickness far more pervasive than hunger