As a young boy growing up in a small mill town, the concept of hunger was so foreign to me. Sure, I knew what it felt like to be hungry, but I was secure in the fact that my next meal was only a few hours away. The banquets created in family kitchens everywhere were as delicious as they were bountiful. Whether you came from a family of means or not, the notion of going without food was simply unthinkable. If your Mom didn’t feed you, your Grandmother, Aunt, or next door neighbor certainly would. More often than not (and if you played your cards right) all four of them would! We were all secure in knowing that food was always going to be available. Hunger, extreme and desperate hunger, was something that happened in third world countries that I learned about in parochial school and in church sermons. The face of hunger was illustrated in sobering pictorials of West African children with swollen bellies living in war-torn and famine-stricken areas of the world so very far from my backyard. Hunger could never happen right here at home.
Fast-forwarding to a time some forty years later, in this very same community, I found myself sitting in a local breakfast restaurant eating a modest meal while reading a newspaper. At a nearby table, a young mother with 3 children in tow was struggling to maintain order and quell the cacophony of sounds emanating from hungry, impatient mouths. One child wanted French Toast, another wanted pancakes, while the third child couldn’t decide between eggs or waffles. The Mom spent time studying the menu, while both her facial expressions and body language spoke volumes. She was very obviously adding up the cost of each meal and coming to the sobering realization that the family budget was smaller than what the bill would come to. She announced to her brood that they must pick items within a certain price range or share meals that were more expensive. Her children protested slightly, but ultimately complied and settled on smaller-priced meals.
My heart sank. The Mom did her level-best to keep her chin up, and play it as though nothing was wrong – but the hard truth was that she felt really bad and was on the verge of tears. With a small lump in my throat, I began having a whole host of emotions ranging from sympathy to anger. I felt sorry that this family had to struggle and that the cost of food just continues to rise week-over-week. I was angry that times have morphed from an age when the cupboard was always full to a time where families are often forced to play a cruel game of roulette where food, shelter, clothing, and utilities are all at play and vying for the same limited resources at hand. When you’re dealing with a skinny wallet, sometimes food wins… sometimes it doesn’t. As much as I may not like this, it has become a hard home truth. The new faces of hunger were but a few feet from where I sat and it humbled me in a way that I will not soon forget. I wanted to help somehow. I scrambled to think of a way. This Mom was obviously a very proud woman, so any gesture I could have offered would have to be anonymous and somewhat clandestine. I caught the attention of the waitress serving their table and decided I would quietly pay their ticket along with mine and then be on my way after persuading the waitress to not reveal my identity. This wasn’t about me. It was about a random act of kindness that would give a little relief to a struggling family with a message that there is still compassion in the world.
Sadly, the new faces of hunger are all around us. Many people in your community struggle to put enough food on the table on a regular basis. They live in your neighborhoods, the work where you work, and they have children and grandchildren in your schools. They most often suffer in silence, and never display their struggle in any outward or demonstrative way. They are the Hidden Hungry.
Now, more than ever, food pantries need our help to fill their shelves and stuff their lockers with basic staples to help the local hungry with this very real struggle. You can help. You can exact a random act of kindness that lets people know that there is relief for them and that compassion is still alive in the world. Support your local food pantry, invite a neighbor to dinner, teach someone how to cook on a shoestring, and pay it forward. No one deserves to be hungry.