I am one of those whose mother invoked starving children in India or China as a way to get me to eat nasty vegetables like eggplant and okra and to otherwise leave nothing on the plate. These days, I like vegetables, I clearly do not often leave anything on the plate, and my mother need not look past our own shores to see starving children.
I had two very different experiences last month. One was reading Dr. Tom Patterson’s commentary on the growth of “the unaffordable welfare state” (AFN, May 10). Quoting from a Washington Post article about a “food stamp recruiter,” Patterson made the point that the underlying agenda is to increase the size of government. He is correct that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) grew 135 percent between 2007 and 2011. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), 65 percent of the growth was related to an increase in recipients during the greatest economic crisis since 1929. The other experience I had last month was watching the documentary “A Place at the Table” with our youth groups. There is another side to hunger in America, and that is the 49 million Americans, including one of four children, that do not know where their next meal is coming from. In Maricopa County alone, there are more than 40,000 families in that category. It is a systemic problem that grows from a lack of food policy and the bitter irony is that our food production is higher than ever, but far more of our neighbors are food insecure.
The average SNAP recipient gets less than $1.50 per meal. It does not go very far. The way to get the most calories out of that is to spend it on processed foods that do not provide proper nutrition. Eighty-three percent of SNAP recipients are at or below the Federal Poverty Guideline (FPG) ($19,530 for a family of three). Many of the nation’s food insecure make too much money (130 percent of the FPG) to qualify for assistance. I had the youth do a little math and calculate the income of a family of four where both parents work at minimum wage jobs. After calculating housing, medical, utilities, and clothing, they were amazed at how little was left for food for a family ineligible for SNAP.
In Luke’s gospel Jesus tells a story that still resonates to how the richest country on the planet can have hungry children. On the inside of the house there is purple clothing (the most expensive) and fine linen covering a table laden with sumptuous food. Outside the gate there is Lazarus, laden with illness, hunger and hopelessness.
Matthew goes in a different direction: the king praises those who saw him hungry and gave him to eat; saw him thirsty and gave him to drink; saw him naked and gave him clothes. His subjects of course are astonished — they have never seen the king in such a state. “Just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Here’s a silly question: The CBO estimates that at some point 50 percent of all children will be food insecure. Even if we could prove that the parents of all those hungry children were slackers who just refused to work and wanted to live off of entitlements (and that is clearly not the case), would we allow the children to starve?
“A Place at the Table” is available to rent on iTunes and can be purchased on DVD. It is worth 84 minutes of your time.
• Steve Hammer is the pastor at Esperanza Lutheran Church in Ahwatukee Foothills.