I was pleasantly surprised this morning when, despite having eaten breakfast earlier than normal (around 7.30) in order to make it to a meeting downtown at 8, I found myself still feeling pretty satisfied at 10 a.m., the start of a training session I sat in on at a client's office. 10.30 and I was still doing pretty well. At 11, things started to go downhill, and I could feel and hear my stomach start to rumble. I spent the next hour hoping it would stop, hoping no one else in the room would hear it.
There can be something overly intimate, something hard to handle and vaguely unseemly, about witnessing someone else's hunger (or someone else's gluttony, or any part of someone else's digestive process). We might be interested in hearing about others' meals or food preferences or adventures in cooking, but we're happy, I think, not knowing too much about what's behind them.
I've been fairly avidly watching the show "Hoarders" on A&E, both because it's relevant to my work and because it's pretty engrossing. One thing that struck me about this week's episode was how, from the outside of the two featured subjects' homes, it would be impossible to know that extreme clutter lie waiting inside. Hoarding was (check: is) a very private, very hidden issue for both of these people. Unless you happened to get a peek inside their houses, you'd never know about their struggles.
This got me thinking about the secrecy of hunger. If I were truly forced to eat on $4 a day (plus whatever supplemental foods I happened to get), and thus had to go hungry on a regular basis, I can confidently say that I'd do my best to hide it. Because isn't there a sense that if you don't have enough for food, something is amiss--and it's likely something that reflects negatively on you? Maybe people think your priorities are out of whack, or assume you're blowing your cash on something else, or deem something about you insufficient if you can't scrape together enough money to pay for decent meals, especially if you're working. (Factoid: 60% of the clients the San Francisco Food Bank served in 2008 were from working families.) If you keep your hunger a secret, you don't have to deal with anyone else's perceptions, no matter how flatly wrong they may be.
Evidently something like one in eight people in the U.S. does not regularly get enough to eat. One in eight. That's a ludicrously high figure for such a wealthy country, and it means, among other things, that somewhere in the sphere of people you know is likely at least one person going hungry. I'm willing to bet you probably couldn't pick that person out. I know I couldn't.
But here's something interesting: this week, people know I'm hungry (the attendees at this morning's meeting aside). And I can't begin to count how many offers I've had of free food. If the rules of the Hunger Challenge allowed for supplements to the $4 per day I'm allowed to spend, I would probably be able to eat at least one meal a day that was given to me or purchased for me by someone else.
I would have, for example, been able to join the Israeli tonight in enjoying a burrito from the Little Chihuahua. He offered to pay. I demurred, citing the rules. So he brought his burrito over and ate it while I opted for arugula salad (roughly 75 cents). I resisted again when he brought out two mugs to make tea ("That's, like, 20 cents," I said. "Over budget."), and gave in only when he rummaged in the snack drawer, brought out a Canadian Kit Kat, and said, "Come on, can't you at least have one piece?" I did. That was about 20 cents. Over budget, yes. But I couldn't resist.
I dream of a burrito, of a bowl of pasta AND some salad AND bread. I'm longing for a cupcake, a glass of wine, a cup of salted caramel ice cream from BiRite. I would love a bowl of yogurt drizzled with honey and sprinkled with almonds, would be so thrilled to cut off a big slice of the ricotta salata I bought on Sunday and pop the entire thing into my mouth. I just picked up my CSA box this afternoon and felt briefly on the verge of a breakdown as I washed the impossibly plump, impossibly beautiful bunch of grapes that came in it. I ate two. If I play my cards right, I can eat a small handful of them tomorrow.
I am so weary of being hungry, of calculating the cost of every meal, of having to resist not only actual temptations (cupcakes, ice cream, wine, the bottle of Woodford's Reserve sitting in wait on my bar) but also things that, in any other week, would not qualify as temptations: yogurt, grapes, big salads, second servings of pasta, a baguette from La Boulange, as much produce as I can possibly stand.
I remind myself that I need only survive three more days of this and then it's back to reality. I'm so (literally) achingly humbled to truly understand that, for a mind-boggling number of people in a nation that has so much, this is reality. How can that be?