Thinking About the Problem of Hunger
Today my plan is to bake bread. It is a homey task and an escape from the convoluted ups and downs of the past weeks and months of being mired in contentious political debates and scandals. I have felt wrung out by all of it–almost as if I’ve forgotten what the progressive effort is all about.
I start with warm water, yeast, salt, and olive oil, and I stir them together with a fork before doing some other short task while the yeast cures. I read through my mother’s worn recipe. I don’t need it, but I look at it again as I always do when I bake bread. It’s like a presence–like having her here in the kitchen while I read her notes in longhand in the margin of the page. I begin to turn the pages of the cookbook, lost for a while in one of her worlds.
I smell the curing yeast before I remember to check it. It’s bubbling slightly, and I start adding flour to the bowl and start the mixer. By the time the flour has blended in with the liquid, I’m beginning to feel a little less stressed. I turn the dough out onto the cool counter, dust it with flour, and knead by hand for a while, remembering my mom, and her mother before her, and the mothers before them who made bread for their families and thanked whatever goodness they believed in for being able to feed their children. I imagine that this feeling I have while kneading the dough is a sort of ancestral memory–something we all inherit from those who came before us.
I think about my husband’s garden experiment in which he grew a patch of wheat in our suburban backyard in Fresno, California, partly as a reaction to Monsanto and Big Ag, partly to see if it could be done. It was an oval-shaped patch, to conform to our path, an area of about seventy square feet that would later become an herb garden, but that spring and summer it grew wheat. I remember how he tilled the soil and raked the earth to readiness before spreading the kernels of wheat and raking them in. How the doves descended! I was convinced they’d eat all the seeds before we ever saw a blade of wheat grass. But I was wrong. It came up and grew and thrived, and when it was ready my husband harvested the entire crop with a pair of kitchen scissors. We spent hours trying to separate the wheat from the chaff. We put the tops on a blanket and threw them into the air, hoping the useless parts would blow away. They didn’t. Eventually, we used an electric fan and slowly, painstakingly separated the kernels from the husks, laughing to ourselves at the ridiculousness of the task. A five-pound sack of organic flour could be purchased for four dollars at the corner store.
As I turn the dough and continue kneading, I remember that the experiment actually yielded just about five pounds of whole-wheat flour–enough for four small loaves of bread, a cracked wheat salad, and crusts for two pizzas. We thought they were delicious.
By the time I finish kneading the dough, I’m calm again. I place it into an oiled crockery bowl–left to us by my husband’s mother–and place it near the stove to rise. I remember how she lived near train tracks and often heard a knock on her door. Some poor traveler, a homeless person who had been riding the rails was hoping for a handout. She’d give him coffee and make him a sack lunch before he went on his way. She couldn’t stand to see anyone hungry.
While the dough rises, I get online and read about hunger in America. I’ve heard it before, but I’m astonished all over again that 13.1 million children under the age of 18 in the United States live in households where they are unable to consistently access enough nutritious food for a healthy life. I remember how the students at one of the rural elementary schools where I used to teach often came to school hungry and that many of the teachers brought graham crackers and bottles of juice to work as a matter of course, offering a snack to any child who wanted it. Usually the whole class did, but that was how you fed the hungry kids with no one noticing in those days.
I look up and see that the dough has more than doubled in bulk, rising above the rim of the bowl. I wash my hands, punch it down, and divide it into thirds, taking each section and rolling it into a longish snake. I pinch three ends together and braid them before I set the loaf on an oiled cookie sheet that I’ve sprinkled with cornmeal. I leave the dough to rise again and go back to reading.
The site I’ve found tells me that 14.1 percent of Americans live in poverty, that children are the most visible victims of undernutrition. I learn that undernutrition around the world –including fetal growth restriction, stunting, wasting, and vitamin and mineral deficiencies — cause up to 3.1 million child deaths annually. I think about people I know who don’t believe in giving handouts, but I can’t imagine them thinking it wrong to lift children out of poverty.
I brush the top of the braided dough with egg white and scatter a little kosher salt over it before putting the pan into the hot oven. Soon, the fragrance of baking bread begins to fill the house, and I think of my children and grandchildren who are coming over to have a meal with us. None of us is ever really hungry. We hardly know the meaning of the word.
I think about the mothers around our country and world whose children go to bed hungry. I wonder if they’re angry that the richest country in the world, a country that produces far more food than it can possibly consume, throws away vast quantities of milk, wheat, and produce every year in order to keep prices high, while millions can’t afford to buy what’s on the shelves in grocery stores. There’s something wrong with this picture.
What’s wrong, of course, is that the profit motive has come to dominate everything in this country. Capitalism has been given such free rein that it has become a religion. Who would pour milk into the dirt to keep prices high when that same milk would save a starving child? Apparently, when hidden behind a corporate banner, lots of people would.
Last year, dairy farmers in Agri-Mark–a New England dairy cooperative–threw away 272 metric tons of milk due to “a global glut.” The US routinely throws away as much as half of its produce ($160 billion worth) each year, and there is such a global surplus of wheat that farmers have nowhere to store it. It’s being dumped in parking lots and vacant buildings. The wheat surplus is expected to rise in 2017, and it’s not just wheat. Corn, soybeans, and sorghum are also stockpiled.
Meanwhile, according to Duncan Green, “Some 850 million people (one in eight of the world’s population) go to bed hungry every night. Many of them are children, for whom early hunger leaves a lifelong legacy of cognitive and physical impairment. The human and economic waste is horrifying.” He goes on to tell us that it doesn’t have to be this way. “Ending hunger is entirely feasible (indeed, once achieved, the only question will be why it took us so long).”
Moving from one site to another, I learn that conquering childhood hunger calls for action on several different levels. The World Health Organization tells me that poverty is its essential cause–that people simply do not have enough income to buy a sufficient quantity of food. Unequal income distribution among working people impacts developing countries and the United States as well. Even a country with a government as volatile and fragmented as Brazil’s has steadily reduced hunger since 1990, when hunger was said to affect 14.7 percent of its population. In 2015, hunger was under 5%. Their strategies? They gave money to poor people, provided free school meals, raised the minimum wage, and invested in smallholder farmers. While some of these methods have been put into effect at a certain level in the United States, they haven’t been done with enough intensity to create the results achieved in Brazil. We can do better.
The oven timer rings, and I retrieve the golden loaf from the oven and set it out on a rack to cool. Making bread has centered me. I am remembering why I must keep working for change in our country and world. I still want the election, with all its combativeness and antagonism, to be over. I know we need to win, but even when we do, our work will have just begun. Something reminds me every day of reasons why I’m a progressive. Today, it was baking bread.
“Brazil – A Champion in The Fight Against Hunger.” (2014). Retrieved October 28, 2016 from http://www.wfp.org/stories/brazil-champions-fight-against-hunger
Goldenberg, Suzanne. (2015). “The US Throws Away as Much as Half Its Food.” Retrieved October 25, 2016 from https://www.wired.com.
Green, Duncan. (2012). “Ending World Hunger is Possible – So Why Hasn’t it Been Done?” Retrieved October 25, 2016 from https://www.theguardian.com.
Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics. (2016). Retrieved October 25, 2016 from http://www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america.
Mission 2014: Feeding the World. (2014). Retrieved October 25, 2016 from http://12.000.scripts.mit.edu.
Mulvany, Lydia. “The US Is Producing a Record Amount of Milk and Dumping the Leftovers.” (2015). Retrieved October 25, 2016 from http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles.
Rail, DeWayne. (2014). Backyard Wheat. https://amzn.com/B00LFXYYCG.
Ramkumar, Amrith. (2016). “America Wastes $160 Billion in Food Every Year But is too Busy to Stop.” Retrieved October 25, 2016 from http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles.
Rodale, Maria. (2014). “Stop Feeding the Beast and Start Feeding People.” Retrieved October 25, 2016 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com.
Wilson, Jeff and Megan Durisin. (2016). “No Room in U.S. Grain Silos Means Dumping Wheat in Parking Lots.” Retrieved October 25, 2016 from http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles.
“World Hunger Falls to Under 800 Million, Eradication is Next Goal.” (2015). Retrieved October 28, 2016 from https://www.wfp.org/news/news-release.