Elizabeth Cook: Hunger begins in the checkout line

  • Posted: Sunday, June 16, 2013 12:29 a.m.
    UPDATED: Sunday, June 16, 2013 12:33 a.m.

The woman ahead of me in the checkout line had a cart full of groceries.

As she slowly put her items on the conveyor belt, one by one, I glanced around. The other lines looked longer, so I stayed.

You can’t help but notice what people are buying in situations like this. Potato chips. Napkins. Pecan twirls. Milk. Pork and beans.

One. By one. By one.

The young cashier announced the total. The woman looked at her cash. And then she started picking items out of the bags the cashier had just filled and giving them back to her.

One. By one. By one.

First chips. Then the milk. She kept going.

I leaned over to the cashier and asked a question. How much more money did the woman need?

This was mostly selfish. I wanted to finish my errands. I paid the difference, waved off the woman’s questioning eyes and put my own items on the conveyor.

That, I told the cashier, was one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen — a woman struggling to buy groceries for her family and running out of money.

“We see that all the time here,” the cashier said, and thanked me for my part. “It’ll come back to you.”

It’s been coming back to me ever since, but not in the way she intended.

A newspaper seminar last year introduced me to the concept of “wicked problems.” These are complex problems that cannot be reduced to a single-cause explanation. They involve ever larger numbers of interacting elements, including human behavior, with unpredictable, non-linear results.

Instead of cause and effect, think of a random constellation of causes leading to multiple, interconnected outcomes. How do you fix that?

This shortfall went beyond insufficient funds. She was unable to estimate how much her money could buy, going over by about a third. The bulk of her purchases were processed foods, cheap to buy and poor in nutrients.

Her predicament came back to me as I read “A Place at the Table,” edited by Peter Pringle. Some 49 million people in this country are said to be uncertain of where their next meal is coming from — a situation the woman likely will face before the month is out — and that is “unacceptable in a society so rich and productive as ours,” the book says.

That includes Rowan County. The Department of Social Services receives about 800 new applications for Food and Nutrition Services a month, according to Director Donna Fayko. An average of 26,839 people — more than 12,000 Rowan families — receive those benefits each month. So far this fiscal year, that has amounted to $29.3 million in benefits. Just in Rowan.

The face of hunger in America is not one of starvation, like the haunting photos from famine-stricken countries. But there’s no denying the United States has a food problem.

And it is wicked.

The food stamp program began in 1939, designed to connect agricultural surpluses with families going hungry. Through the years, restrictions pointing participants toward milk, eggs, fruits and vegetables were dropped. Downward, too, went the nutritional value of what participants chose to buy.

They turned to cheap, processed foods that fill hungry stomachs but provide little nutrition — foods that have contributed heavily to the nation’s obesity epidemic. That’s more money for the food processors, less for the farmers.

The federal role in school lunches began much the same way in 1946, “as a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities.”

As has happened in the food stamp program, economic pressures can undermine the school lunch program’s goals— for instance, driving cafeteria managers away from the preparation of fresh food toward bulk, convenience foods. But that’s been changing.

The solution to hunger is for everyone to have a well-paying job.

Easier said than done.

The 600 cases of sweet strawberries served to Rowan County school children in May could also be part of the solution.

Grown in North Carolina — many at Patterson Farms in Rowan County — the fruit was part of the N.C. Farm to School Program. When local food can be served at schools, less money goes toward shipping and distribution. Fewer dollars go to food processors and more to farmers.

Multiply that example by millions of school lunches across the country, and fresh produce could become as affordable and accessible as less nutritious fare. Children might grow up preferring nutritious fresh fruits and vegetables.

This is an oversimplification. The schools have been buying local food for years, and they follow nutrition guidelines. But the push for fresh, local food is ramping up. We got into our current obese-yet-poorly-nourished situation by degrees — one by one by one, wicked degree by wicked degree. It will take countless small changes to reverse the trend.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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