Hunger in America seems to be excluded from general discussions, except during the holiday season when discourse focuses on appeals for individual donations to “those in need.” Little or nothing is said about complex nature of this issue. According to Feeding America last year 36.2 million Americans lived with food shortages, many of whom were working poor. Facing economic calamity, these numbers will increase creating a grim future for many more Americans. Including demographics of children, race and gender the picture becomes even more complex and worthy of comprehensive national discourse.
So why are we not talking about hunger in meaningful terms? Is it that we are afraid to acknowledge various systems of oppression that help shape this issue? Perhaps we believe that this issue should be vocalized solely by those who live with hunger since, after all it is their problem? Or is it that many of us do not have a frame of reference to hunger, so it becomes an abstract issue and as such it slides on the scale of importance? While I can hypothesize why there is a lack of main stream discourse on hunger, I can relate to its impact first hand.
During the siege of Sarajevo all roads leading to and from the city were cut off, leaving the city without a food supply. In those first months of the war, we relied on food already in the house. Being true Europeans, we never really had fully stocked pantries. Flour was purchased only on occasions warranting cake making and vegetables, fruit and meat were purchased almost on a daily basis. My mom, sister and I began our war journey with a gallon of oil, half a pound of flour, quarter pound of sugar and a few cans of sardines forgotten in dark corners of the kitchen cupboard.
While we learned to be creative with what we had, finding food on a daily basis became a challenge. In the summer we learned to incorporate all kinds of weeds and grass into our diet. I spent long hours looking through a book “How to Survive in Wilderness” hoping to find alternative sources of food. Did you know that one can make flour out of the birch bark? Problem was, I realized, that we did not live in wilderness but in a concrete paved city with well groomed parks. Not a great source of edible vegetation.
After that first year of war, we began to receive a humanitarian aid consisting of American lunch packets left over from the Korean War, surplus rice, beans and lentils often infested with maggots, and a ration of oil less than a half of litter per a household of three. Salt and sugar became things that we dreamed about, and fruit, vegetables, meat and eggs were nostalgic memories of “those better days.”
Soon, we lived on rations of three thin slices of bread a day and a thin soup made of beans, lentil or rice. A half a can of Mackerels or a can of an unknown meat substance rounded up our diet. As the war worsened we were soon down to one meal a day, and in the third year of war the food was so scarce that we ran out completely. After a week we were too weak to interact with each other. The unselfish kindness of a neighbor saved us. Even though she and her mother struggled themselves, she came to our aid with enough flour and a can of sardines to get us through couple of days. This act of true compassion made “giving up” impossible.
The lack of food seemed to spark our obsession with all kinds of edible things. My sister and I spent hours reminiscing about food. I obsessively flipped through cookbooks lavishing over pictures of food. We focused a great deal of our cognitive resources on food, making it difficult to think of more abstract concepts such as freedom and life. We found it difficult to extend beyond the walls of our physical condition. Instead of living we were surviving and in that process we became silent. And this silence is the real tragedy of hunger.