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Moyers: 50 Million Go Hungry in America

Debates on how to address hunger are filled with clichés about freeloaders undeserving of government help. But the documentary "A Place at the Table" paints a truer picture of America’s poor.

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BILL MOYERS: What do you take from their stories? Because you worked with a totally different population.

MARIANA CHILTON: I'm not so sure they're that different, that's the thing. I think that when you were saying before about stereotypes I think that in the press and our legislators have a certain stereotype about who's poor and who's not and this concept of the deserving poor. But the women that I work with through Witnesses to Hunger are very hardworking.

They're excellent mothers, excellent parents. They want the best for their kids. They're often working two or three jobs. Sometimes they'll have to work under the table in order to make ends meet, trying to find side jobs. They're hustling really hard.

And I see the police chief, I see the cowboy who's also taking on that second job. What I see is common among then is a loss of dignity in the work. You can actually work full time and your family is still hungry? There's a very big problem in this country that we are not valuing hard work like we used to.

BILL MOYERS: There's a young woman in the film who says quote, "Hunger could be right next door and you would never know because people are too afraid to talk about it." Why are people afraid to talk about it, Dr. Chilton?

MARIANA CHILTON: Well, I think there's an enormous amount of shame that goes, especially when… I work with moms of little children, young children. And there's an enormous amount of shame that they experience that they, may run out of money before they can get more food. And it really tests their sense of motherhood, their sense of citizenship, of belonging. And it's very isolating. And I think that when the moms that I speak with, they talk about when they were children they, too, were hungry and they were always told, "Don't talk about it. Don't let anybody know how hard it is. Always put on a good face. Always look good," you know, it’s about being able to be in the world and be treated with a sense of dignity and respect. So they would often hide their own experiences of hunger or hide the experience that they can't feed their own children.

BILL MOYERS: Do we sometimes pass hunger down as a legacy to the next generation?

MARIANA CHILTON: Oh yes, we do. It gets transferred from generation to generation. Now, it also happens that during an economic downturn when there are not enough good paying jobs of course hunger will skyrocket. But I think that when people don't realize that hunger is very damaging to children, to, especially to young children. Food insecurity affects the cognitive, social and emotional growth of very young children.

That means that by the time they arrive to kindergarten they're not ready for school. That means that when they're in school if they're hungry they won't be able to concentrate on what they're learning and they won't do as well on their math and their reading tests. That means they won't be as successful, won't get a good paying job so that when they have children they, too, will be poor. So poverty is an experience that's really seared into the bodies and brains of children.

BILL MOYERS: What happens to someone who gets too little nutrition early in life?

MARIANA CHILTON: Oh, it's extremely important. If you think about what's happening in the first three years of life the brain is growing so fast. They're the most important years of human development. So every moment those are the building blocks of good cognitive, social and emotional development. Neurons are growing and pruning and very active. 700 neurons are growing a second for an infant. It’s an important window of human development.

 
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