Dear Gov. Baker,
“For I was Hungry and You Fed Me Not”
The presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders brought the problem of income inequality and its social consequences to national attention. In the spring 2016 term, Emerson alternative press students took up this issue in the most fundamental way – they explored the topic of urban hunger.
Why does hunger persist in a Boston metropolitan area of vast wealth? Why are a disproportionate number of residents denied the most basic need for life? What is being done to intervene in the condition of food insecurity? What more can be done to support efforts to provide access to good food for all?
With such questions in mind, alternative press students documented the efforts of ordinary people to interrupt the condition of hunger in Boston.
The projects are in time for the annual “Walk for Hunger” rally around the city on May 1. This year marks the 48th citywide event sponsored by Project Bread. For more information see the event website: http://www.projectbread.org/walk-for-hunger/
The non-profit agency is one of the many valuable metropolitan resources – along with individual, private, and public efforts – that seek to combat the problem of food insecurity.
The Boston area is one of the most expensive regions in the nation. The price of food, and the location of markets, are influenced by the forces of wealth. In this environment, access to adequate nutritious food becomes an entitlement for those willing and able to pay.
Meanwhile, the poor are left to get by on emergency food programs, or by skipping meals, begging, scavenging, and stealing on the very same streets as our most upscale restaurants and bistros.
In Boston, an estimated 18% of families with children lived on poverty incomes, according to a 2010 study by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Across Massachusetts, about 10% of residents suffered from hunger. The numbers of people that had to rely on food stamps exploded from 456,000 to 628,000 in the years after the financial crisis.
In the U.S., over 17 million households dealt with food insecurity in 2010. They turned to emergency resources such as food banks, food pantries, and soup kitchens. Even with these resources, about 4 million households went hungry.
The consequences are all around us but difficult to discern. The experience of Great Depression child hunger captured in the opening photo are largely arrested. And the times when famines resulted in bloated bellies and skeletal figures like the Russian children below are unthinkable in this country, thankfully.
What is common among us is misery of varying degrees: fatigue, lethargy, anxiety, depression, and irritability brought on by skipped meals. Diets that lack proper nutrition and foster obesity and susceptibility to infectious disease and conditions such as diabetes.
Hungry mothers experience developmental problems in pregnancy and newborn and infant vulnerability. Hungry children perform poorly in school. The characteristics include absenteeism, behavior and emotional problems, and higher levels of suspension as a result.
Then there are the array of male ex-soldiers, ex-cons, long-term unemployed, chronic under-employed, and cash-strapped students. There are substance users, lost teenagers, and other near-do-wells. There are the shut-in seniors, the people with mental and physical disabilities, the proud and the shamed.
Many earn little sympathy from society or state leaders. But a full stomach and nutritious meal is as critical a right to life for them as for the recognized truly needy cases of women and children.
Gov. Charlie Baker, as the leading political figure in the state, has been missing in action on this issue. While the responsibility is borne by many agencies, and by families suffering the consequences, his voice is essential to raise public awareness and delegate state resources.
Emerson students documented some of the efforts of individuals and agencies to intervene in Boston’s hunger. Some of the efforts have an element of self-reliance and mutual assistance. Such initiatives play important roles but constitute a porous safety net in a region of great wealth.
The fact is Boston area resources such as food stamps, emergency food programs, dwindling community gardens, and the like all grapple with insufficient funding, institutional support, and bureaucratic red tape.
Moreover, the interests of less affluent communities always lose out in competition with the interests of affluent communities in the metropolitan area. The politicians know which hand washes the other.
History argues that the ultimate solution to hunger is to provide the jobs, wages, support systems, and education that will enable people to help themselves.
Until that fateful time arrives, the emergency food programs are essential for lessening the hunger around us. But they need fair attention and resources from the top — surely we can do better.
Associate Professor of American Studies
Department of Journalism
Students participating in the Boston Hunger Project were Alexander Culafi, Giuliann Frendak, Christopher Gavin, Jessica Grainger, Rivka Herrera, Lauren Hoyerman, Erin Kayata, Patrick Keller, Alexander Krinsky, Michelle Lavner, Anna Marketti, Anthony Monzon, Margaret Morlath, Shannon O’Connor, Hunter Reis, Eleanor Romano, and Emily Theytaz.