What does starvation look like?

During the Bush Administration’s push to enter Afghanistan, our hearts were twisted as we heard stories of women being burned alive by Taliban men in a rush to prove their power. Our eyes poured over images of women with bruises and cuts incurred by disobeying the law of the land. It felt, at least for me, that the hijab became the symbol of the outrage of the Taliban rule – how dare these men mistreat these women? Don’t they know better? Can’t we help them?


As so often happens in our world, we see stories like this that tug on our heartstrings in all the right places. From the pictures of little brown kids with bloated bellies and flies in their eyes you lazily encounter while sifting through piles of magazines you find on side tables in the doctor’s waiting room to stories of those women in Juarez that go missing as you cozily listen to the nightly news, we are suckers for issues abroad. You know that feeling – of guilt. And I don’t blame you – it is indeed terrible and sad.


I’m not sure if we Americans feel completely blameworthy about our successes as a nation, but we sure do love to watch others’ misery and speculate on how to help. As someone who identifies with this (possibly) altruistic behavior, I do also feel acutely aware of issues we address abroad rather than domestically, especially in regards to our nutrition.


Because: there are people being mistreated here in America. There are people who are starving. We have people with bloated bellies. And we have flies.


Yet what is the state of our people here? Aren’t some of us hungry too? Why is it easier to look outwardly to help others than to help ourselves? Do we understand the complex dynamics of any other country better than ours? Is our cultural fluency that much better to be able to help people overseas better than we can ourselves?


And more to the point: who or what politicizes starvation?


We all do.


In a fabulously poignant piece, Global Food Politics points out that we are in search of a new food politics – one where our food production is applied to our hunger rather than simply matching it with production. “Talking about increasing food production is part of a long tradition of offering technical solutions to social problems. The more difficult challenges—reducing poverty and inequality, ensuring access to food, and enabling communities to address the problems they face—are political and social in nature.”

And I’ll talk about something political, here: 1 in 6 Americans face hunger. 1 in 5 of those are children. Does that tug at your heartstrings?

In last week’s post, I talked about the idea that it’s hard to come into a community and implant an idea –  that the social aspect of nutrition is why we have such an issue with malnutrition here. I’ll argue that the reason we have such a hard time looking domestically is because we don’t know how to empower people in a way that encourages behavioral shifts. How are you going to change someone’s mind about “freedom of choice,” when you’re so busy telling them that what they’re doing is wrong? If you’ve ever felt the sting of someone’s unsolicited advice, you know what I’m talking about.


The truth is that it’s definitely easier to give other people advice rather than follow it yourself. That fact is so well-touted that it has become a cliché. Yet here we are on the precipice of this generation living shorter lives than their parents (a first in human history), with 1 in 6 people going hungry and with our country’s health going right out the window.

If you need to ask yourself what hunger looks like, look around you. You might be surprised by what you see. And if you want information on how to better your community, look here.


New Year’s Resolutions and our Health Care

I think in this new year, I want to talk this week about America’s self-image and promises we should all make to ourselves about how we can all – as a society – improve. Things we can all do to work on systemic issues that are interrelated and cause great harm. What am I talking about?


The issues of physical and mental health that we as Americans face are multifactorial, tied in with income levels, community support, gender, race, opportunity, predisposition (social and genetic) and the invisible barriers that are created for all these things.


The issue of how these things are related is complicated, but it’s not hard to see why they are linked: pressure influences our choices, pure and simple. Break down the pressures people feel  like food insecurity, money insecurity, body insecurity, stereotypes and complications of/with being a minority (race, gender, identity), expectations/restrictions from family and/or culture, and we have a large, complex picture that is hard to explore. These factors are huge, however, and carry weight.


Unfortunately, we have dug ourselves into a hole – food is so cheap that if you have the pressure of money, it makes it hard to turn down. And, unfortunately, cheap food is cheap. Encouraging this cheap for cheap exchange are food subsidies for families like SNAP and WIC that don’t cover 100% of food costs – economic concerns are still in the periphery for poor families. On top of that, we have issues of access to information regarding proper nutrition (internet availability, internet competence of the user, proper knowledge of what to look for, etc.), the information regarding nutrition itself (conflicting at best), cultural standards of seeking information, knowledge deficiency… And that is just IF you WANT to know. What about if you are totally ok with the standard of food? If your status quo is completely acceptable to you?


The point that I’m making is that there are so many damned concerns relating to elevating our nutritional understanding and output (and intake) in the U.S. that simple things on the ground floor like marketing juice cleanses, imposing sugar taxes or regulating the size of sodas can not be effective without a massive overhaul of the way things are done within our government. The issue with measures like this are that they fall in line with the idea of consumer responsibility. On a certain level, this is fair. We are technically the ones driving up to the Wendy’s window and handing over our own money… but what isn’t fair is that this is our status quo. The perception of the public is that we are making a choice between satisfying our very real food addiction/sacrificing health/choosing affordable food/picking “taste” and getting healthful food.

We don’t have a regulatory agency that is a consumer protection agency in the same way some countries do – I think that’s a huge first step towards taking care of our people; to take care of ourselves. For our (somewhat late) New Years Resolutions, I think we should all be shifting our gaze towards an empowering image of ourselves, and towards taking care of our affairs. Why not help the health of our nation and of ourselves? More on this later.