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Hunger Lasts Beyond Christmas Day

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 with malnutrition.

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 and malnutrition.