I am waiting these days for a revelatory moment in which some national leader—elected or self-chosen—will begin to campaign to feed the hungry.
That leader would have a large audience ready to applaud, since statistics from non-profits involved in that work say that one in six Americans go hungry every day.
There was time, in the 1960's, as Bobby Kennedy visited places like Mississippi, as VISTA workers went into the urban ghettoes, ramshackle farmhouses and migrant worker camps, that hunger and solving it was part of the national debate.
When I worked for National Welfare Rights at the end of the Sixties, campaigns like the White House Conference on Hunger led by Dr. Jean Mayer, found sympathetic ears and open food pantries. The economy was such that people were ready to share—and they had the means to do it.
Now, at the Los Angeles Downtown Women’s Center on Skid Row, I watch as day after day, week after week, teams of volunteers show up to prepare breakfast and lunch for some of the almost 5000 women who live nearby on the streets. When I first volunteered there, in 1981, most of the women had some kind of mental illness or were alcoholics or both. The DWC was started by my friend Jill Halverson, a storefront in which a hundred plus women could show up at lunch and get a hot meal. Churches, synagogues and, most delicious of all, firehouses would volunteer a day a month to both bring the groceries and prepare the meal.
Now the DWC functions as an alternative to what should be government services. With an aspiration to end homelessness for women and a practical approach to feeding, providing medical and psychological services, dress and care for these “bag ladies,” the DWC has quite a mandate. Last year, 90,000 meals were served, breakfasts and lunches.
And now not just to mentally ill women. No, in many cases women, younger and once employed, who find themselves done in by the economy. One bad relationship, one bad job, one beating, one eviction, and there they are on the street.
In 1973, in order to fulfill the requirements for an M.Div from Yale Divinity School, I had to write a sermon. It did not matter that, as a Roman Catholic, I wasn't headed to ordination. Expository Preaching was taught by Harry Baker Adams, a friend and a mentor—but on this requirement he would not budge. I complained that I could not find the right passage in either the Old or the New Testament. He told me to look for the simplest story and write my homily.
I chose the Loaves and Fishes, Christ preaching to the masses, needing food to feed them, with only one child coming forward to offer his meager meal of five loaves and two fishes. The traditional take was that Christ had multiplied the loaves and the fishes. My take was that the crowd was ashamed that the child was generous and they were not. Suddenly all sorts of food appeared from under people’s cloaks. The miracle was sharing.
But miracles like this are not enough to feed America’s hungry. Food pantries are faced with empty shelves as the demand grows daily. In Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, and just about every small town everywhere, neighbors and friends are trying to feed all these people. I am always thrilled and almost tearful at the number of good people reaching out to the poor.
But it is just not enough. We just can't get there without national action. Indifference and neglect mean that one-sixth of Americans are hungry everyday—today, tomorrow and into the future.
It seems sad, doesn't it, in a land with money for wars and bike lanes, $25-million McMansions and Bentleys galore, that there just isn't enough conscience, compassion and, yes, embarrassment to persuade the Congress to stop cosseting all those special interests they are carrying around and share America’s abundance with the hungry.
Marylouise Oates has been a prize winning journalist. She is the author of a number of books and teaches at New York University (NYU). Throughout her life she has been an advocate for human rights, an end to poverty and women's issues.