Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed June 1998
Copyright ©1998 by Phoebe Koch

Hunger in the United States: A Man-Made Disease

By Phoebe Koch
Phoebe Koch of Concord, Mass., graduated from Brown University on May 25, 1998, with a bachelor of arts degree in international relations.

"What scares me most is that my own definition of hunger, before working in a soup kitchen, is probably one shared by a majority of Americans. Hunger in the United States remains largely invisible to those who don't wish to see it"

I listened in disbelief and horror the other day as the radio announcer reported the newest chemical weapon scare: Intelligence officials claim that by combining the smallpox disease in humans and apes, Russians are on the verge of cultivating a new strand of smallpox for which there is neither cure nor immunization. One spray of the airborne agent could kill tens of millions of people.

A man-made disease? It seemed the plot of a sick movie. The horror and disgust I felt while listening to the radio have not left me. They are similar to the feelings I harbor when contemplating the estimated 30 million people who face hunger in the United States.

I perceived a connection between the two only recently. Though hunger in our country does not kill, it certainly maims. And although hunger has not evolved from a calculated desire to harm innocent victims, it nevertheless has been created by a population which continues to ignore its existence. Hunger in the United States, like smallpox in Russia, is not the result of a natural phenomenon. Rather, both are man-made creations.

The word "hunger" once recalled to mind images of starving Africans; wide, vacant eyes; skin and bones; bloated stomachs; death and decay. Hunger was my mother's warning - "People are starving in Ethiopia!" - when I failed to finish my dinner. Hunger was what I might find should I dig deep through to the opposite side of the earth. I can only imagine my reaction if my mother instead had said, "Honey, think of our starving neighbors!"

In the past few months I became aware that an estimated 12 million children experience hunger each year, their education sacrificed, their minds and bodies undernourished and underdeveloped. I listened to warnings of government cutbacks and downsized food-aid programs, even though hunger in our country has doubled in the past 10 years. Yet even upon learning the figures, I still could not accept the fact that hunger existed in the United States. Those people filing into soup kitchens weren't starving! In fact, many of them appeared overweight! Where were the living skeletons walking the streets? Where were the statistics coming from? By whose definition were these people being labeled hungry?

It was only after volunteering at Amos House, a Providence soup kitchen, that I was struck by the force of my own ignorance. After sorting through bags upon bags of old doughnuts and stale bread, after serving the patrons beans and franks or iceberg lettuce swimming in oily dressing, I felt sick to my stomach with the knowledge that my limited definition of hunger had blinded me to the face of hunger in the United States. I had not witnessed the pain and anxiety of parents who do not know where their child's next meal would come from. I could not see into the world of an "overweight" woman who regularly fills up on stale bread and doughnuts for lack of anything else. The smiling face of a food-aid recipient belied the daily insecurity of bare cupboards, a mother's pain in refusing a hungry child food, the fear of facing the next day or the next week without nourishment. All of these images came to life for me as I worked at Amos House. I felt ashamed. What scares me most is that my own definition of hunger, before working in a soup kitchen, is probably one shared by a majority of Americans. Hunger in the United States remains largely invisible to those who don't wish to see it.

The technological advances that allow the creation of diseases aimed to kill multitudes are parallel to advances within agriculture and other industries that affect food production. To put it plainly, we lack neither the resources nor the technology required to end hunger and malnutrition in the United States. Yet hunger persists. What we do lack is social awareness, and with it, the will to change. Hunger in the United States is man-made. So, too, must be its solutions.