When I was about 4 or 5 and my sister a toddler, my parents dropped us off at my grandparents’ house for an extended visit. I always remembered it as a fun time, with the two of us cavorting in my grandparent’s small house and filling up on the delicious meals my grandmother produced from the fresh vegetables and chickens kept behind the house. For nearly three months, I was content with a weekly phone check-in from my parents — until, in a long-distanced sobbing fit, I begged my mom to bring us home.
I didn’t know until years later that they borrowed a car to come to get us — that, in fact, they’d had to borrow one to make the six-hour drive from Memphis, Tennessee, to Newellton, Louisiana, to drop us off in the first place. And I didn’t know that they were broke and living so close to the edge they worried they might not be able to feed us.
These tough times have got me thinking about parents who are desperate like my parents once were, scared about not having enough food — the ones lined up for hours, like the local woman in Weymouth interviewed at the Old South Union Church parking lot. She told NBC News: “We’ve been hungry a lot. Without this food bank, we’d probably not eat some nights.” Feeding America, the largest hunger relief organization in the country, predicted the COVID-19 crisis would leave 50 million Americans hungry, 17 million of them children. And Massachusetts has the highest percentage increase of hungry residents in the country, linked to the state’s soaring numbers of unemployed plus the sky-high cost of living and food. Shockingly, Norfolk County leads all other counties in the country, with the biggest jump in the percentage of children who are food insecure, not knowing where or when their next meal will be.
Maybe those numbers will help some who lack empathy understand why the food banks, and church pantries are giving out more free food than they ever have, but they still can’t close the ever-widening gap between the need and the resources they can provide.
Two of President Joe Biden’s first executive orders focused on getting immediate help to people hanging on to the frayed edges of the food safety net. Signing the orders, the president declared, "We cannot, will not, let people go hungry.” One order asked the Agriculture Department to adjust its rules to put more money into SNAP (formerly known as food stamps). Another adds 15% more to the fund for children no longer able to get free meals at schools closed because of COVID-19. For 500,000 Massachusetts school children, those school meals are the difference between eating or going hungry. Right now, one in five local kids is likely to be hungry — double that for children who are African American.
I didn’t learn about my parents’ desperate times until my mom shared the story when I was a young adult. Suddenly, I understood my parents’ quiet special deliveries to families in need and why they always talked to us about helping others, taking us along when they volunteered with social service organizations. I’ve followed their example of giving back — cooking and serving meals at a homeless shelter for many years.
But I also know that committed volunteers and donations to food banks, no matter how generous, aren’t enough to ensure millions will not go hungry as COVID-19 rages on.
How does that happen in one of the richest countries in the world?