Sunday, January 2, 2011

the hungry season

When I first moved back to the US it was hard for me to hear the difficulties low-income folks face described using the same word, "poverty", whether we were talking about people in suburban Chicago or in the slums of Nairobi. Could the same term used for a family living in a one-room, dirt-floor shack in Kibera be applied to a family who might be struggling to make ends meet but owned a car and a television in the US? Were the predicaments of people whose annual per capita incomes measured in thousands of dollars really in the same category of those whose annual incomes were only in the hundreds? Could circumstances marked by the swollen guts of obesity be compared to those resulting in the distended bellies of kwashiorkor?

So I've been surprised, living and working in north/central Brooklyn, to find a lot of similarities between the smells, the stories, the situations of poverty here and there. I'm familiar with the "hungry season" experienced in poor rural communities in the global South, the lean months when the stores from the last harvest dwindle but the current crop is not ready. And I'm learning about a similar cycle of plenty and hunger in the US.

Walmart, Costco, and other grocery outlets throughout the country brace for the first of each month a bit like retail stores do for Black Friday: they stock up, hire extra staff, extend their hours, and prepare for crowds. Like on Black Friday, the shopping frenzy often begins at midnight.

Except rather than discounted clothing and gift items, these shoppers are buying bread and baby formula. The first-of-the-month sales bump, well-documented over the past couple of years, occurs when each months' food stamps benefits are deposited at 12am on the 1st. The purchases reflect that fact that many families' food stamps allocations are insufficient, leading to a monthly cycle of plenty and want. A study of family eating patterns in my neighborhood showed that most families make one big trip to the grocery store at the beginning of the month with their food stamps, and tend to rely on family members, taking out credit at bodegas (corner stores), and food pantries when they've exhausted their benefits at the end of the month.

While this cycle is only one element in the complicated set of factors that allows many of the US's most food insecure people to also be its' heaviest, it certainly contributes. The report showed that many families tend to overeat at the beginning of the month when food is plentiful. As stocks dwindle weeks later, parents will often give their kids cheap junk foods that can make them happy in the hungry times. Once-a-month grocery trips also promote consumption of processed foods, since most fresh items wouldn't last the whole month. And the majority of the bodegas where people shop most frequently don't stock fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods. It may not be famine in the Sahel, but the hungry season is here, too.

And while poverty looks different in a Maasai village in Kenya, an informal settlement in Phnom Penh, the factory-fields of southern California, and the streets of north Brooklyn, the prayer is the same.

Utupe leo riziki yetu

Danos hoy el pan de este dia

Give us this day our daily bread

No comments:

Post a Comment