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Hunger in the U.S.: A Problem as American as Apple Pie

In a country with enough food and money to feed the world twice over, 1-in-8 people struggles to put food on his or her table.

The following is an excerpt from All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America, by Joel Berg.

We have long thought of America as the most bounteous of nations … [t]hat hunger and malnutrition should persist in a land such as ours is embarrassing and intolerable. More is at stake here than the health and well-being of [millions of] American children. … Something like the very honor of American democracy is involved. -- President Richard Nixon, May 6, 1969, Special Message to Congress Recommending a Program to End Hunger in America

Try explaining to an African that there is hunger in America. I’ve tried, and it’s not easy.

In 1990, while on vacation, I was wandering alone through the dusty streets of Bamako, the small capital of the West African nation Mali, when a young man started walking alongside me and struck up a conversation. At first, I thought he wanted to sell me something or ask me for money, but it turned out he just wanted to talk, improve his English and learn a little about America. (He had quickly determined by my skin color that I was non-African and by my sneakers that I was American.)

When he asked me whether it was true that everyone in America was rich, I knew I was in trouble. How could I explain to him that a country as wealthy as mine still has tens of millions suffering from poverty and hunger? How could I explain to him that America -- the nation of Bill Gates, "streets paved with gold," Shaquille O’Neal and all-you-can-eat-buffets -- actually has a serious hunger problem? That in a country without drought or famine and with enough food and money to feed the world twice over 1-in-8 of our own people struggles to put food on their tables?

In Mali, such a statement was a hard sell. While that nation has one of the planet’s most vibrant cultures, it also has one of the least-developed economies. The country has a per capita annual income of $470, meaning the average person makes $1.28 per day -- and many earn far less than that, eking out subsistence livings through small-scale farming or other backbreaking manual labor. With the Sahara desert growing and enveloping ever-increasing swaths of Mali, the nation frequently suffers from widespread drought and famine. According to the United Nations, 28 percent of Mali’s population is seriously undernourished.

I tried to tell him that not all Americans were as rich as he thought, and that much of the wealth he saw was concentrated among a small number of people while the majority toiled to make a basic living. I explained that living in a cash economy such as America’s presents a different set of challenges than living in a subsistence and barter-based economy, which exists in much of Mali. That in America, you have to pay a company for oil, gas and all other basic necessities. You must pay a landlord large sums of money to live virtually anywhere. That while many workers in America earn a minimum wage equaling less than $11,000 a year for full-time work (the U.S. federal minimum wage was then $5.15 per hour), they often pay more than $1,500 per month in rent, which equals $18,000 per year. So, many actually pay more in rent than they earn. Then they have to figure out a way to pay for health care, child care, transportation, and yes, food. When Americans have expenses that are greater than their income, they must go without basic necessities.

I thought I was very persuasive, but I still don’t think I convinced him. Given that English was likely his third or fourth language, perhaps he didn’t precisely understand what I was saying. Perhaps concepts such as paying for child care didn’t resonate with him since few Malians pay others to care for their children. Moreover, I bet that -- all my caveats aside -- $11,000 a year sounded like a great deal of money to him.

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