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FOOD INSECURITY: What does it mean to be hungry?

Andrea Zanin, Social Media Coordinator at Kids Matter, thinks about the far-reaching implications of food insecurity and how we can help.

I have five children and they’re always hungry. They’ll eat breakfast, have a fruit snack before lunch…and five minutes later they’re sta-ar-ving. My usual spiel is, “You guys have no idea what hungry is” and then I hand them an apple, and grab one for myself.

I am South African. I come from a place where hunger is obvious. It’s on the school run, as you do your Saturday morning shopping, and on your way out of town as you take a Sunday drive to some new and beautiful place. Mums, dads, children, citizens beg at most traffic lights; they proliferate cities, with their ragged clothing and malnourished bodies, and if they’re lucky enough perhaps they have a tin roof over their heads in a nearby shanty town – void of water and sanitation…no electricity, no food, but a roof nonetheless.

People steel and kill because they’re hungry.

In England (London), my home of fifteen years, it’s an entirely different experience. Poverty is less obvious, to the point that I’ve almost forgotten what hunger looks like. Here, it’s closeted away like that horrific vase that Aunt Annie gave you for your wedding—you know you can’t dispose of it but it’s too awkward to put on display. Like Aunt Annie’s vase, hunger might not be entirely visible but it’s there; unyielding and oppressive.

Seen or unseen, the reality is that many of us don’t know Hunger’s relentless pangs beyond the discomfort of missing the occasional meal, a rumbling tummy or an inconvenient lethargy. It’s one thing seeing hunger on the street or knowing it’s across the road in that house over there but what does hunger – real, raw hunger – feel like?

Read this:

It’s hard to explain hunger, proper hunger, to people who have never experienced it. Hunger is not just being hungry, the brief sensation of discomfort which lasts only a few hours until the next meal. Being hungry is easy and commonplace. Hunger is different. It’s all-consuming. It was all I could feel and all I could think about. My stomach seemed to twist in on itself, and the more I tried to ignore the pain there the worse it got. My lips felt dry, and licking them made a difference only for a second or two: then they were parched and cracked again. I had no energy so sleep sometimes came easily, but that only hid the hunger rather than cured it, and in the small hours I’d jerk awake involuntarily and the agony was worse than ever. I’d drink lots of water to fill my stomach and trick my body into feeling full. If there was any sugar around, I’d spoon that in to make the water taste sweeter and give me some calories, but if there wasn’t then I’d just go without. I’d feel light-headed and dizzy, as though my thoughts would fly clean away, but those thoughts were simply replaced by some of the same: where can I find food, what can I see that’s even vaguely edible, what would I do if only I could get to eat, when will this pain stop? It wasn’t always as bad as this, of course, but nor was this uncommon, and once I’d experienced it, I’d never forget it.

It’s like a kick in the gut, isn’t it?

This extract comes from Rise, a memoir written by Springbok rugby captain, Siya Kolisi, who grew up in a South African township in the Eastern Cape, called Zwide. Siya’s story begins in the direst of poverty. He knows hunger—real, raw hunger. During term time, Siya had the safety net of at least one meal a day, provided at school, which was typically powdered milk and a thick slice of white bread smeared with peanut butter, or sometimes chicken with rice or samp (dried maize kernels).

Siya’s story is a South African story but it’s also a human story, transcending birth, border and boundary. I don’t share it to generate guilt; I share it because poverty is an isolating experience and often, the people whose stories we need to hear most in order for us to work together to affect change, have no voice. If we don’t know, if we don’t understand and can’t empathise…well, life goes on and children stay hungry, and worse.

Here, in the UK, poverty is deepening. New research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) has found that between 2002/03 and 2019/20 the number of people in very deep poverty (below 40% of median income after housing costs) increased by 1.8 million, from 4.7 to 6.5 million people.

1.5 million children receive free school meals during term time. What is life like for them during thirteen weeks of school holiday, most especially the long summer? Do they appear on their neighbour’s doorstep, like Siya did, asking for food, or is their neighbour also hungry? TLG, which supports children with make-lunch clubs during the school holidays says that “holiday hunger” has been made redundant by the cost-of-living crisis, which has thrust many children and families into a place of everyday “food insecurity”. Sam Craven, who oversees TLG Make Lunch, says:

Through no fault of their own, children are being thrown into poverty, having to skip meals and go without essentials due to ever-rising costs of food, fuel and household bills. Many of them face devastating struggles as a result, including emotional turmoil and impacted opportunities.

Children cannot think clearly if they are hungry; they cannot learn well or participate enthusiastically in life. And it’s not only children who are suffering…

If you’re not already a parent, imagine that you are one; and you have to choose between switching the heating on in winter, replacing your child’s worn school shoes, buying groceries or paying bus fair to get your child to school? To be cold, late or hungry? And then…once you’ve decided what to sacrifice, imagine having to muster the mental bandwidth to play with your child, listen to and love your child, guide and provide boundaries for your child. Imagine the guilt, when you’re unable to provide the most basic human needs for your children—food, warmth, clothing.

In his book, Siya Kolisi describes how his grandmother, who was his primary caregiver at the time, would go without food for days on end to ensure her grandson ate. He writes:

Even if it was just a teaspoon of sugar, that was better than nothing, and she would make sure I had it rather than her. I used to see her struggling, but she never cried and she never took anything  for herself unless there was enough for me too.

It blows my mind that Siya somehow managed to express his talent for rugby in spite of lacking the nutrients to strengthen his body (and in my mind, is testament to how significant a loving adult is in the life of a child). Food insecurity is not only about not having enough food but not having food that is nutritious; that meets dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. For children, severe food insecurity has been linked to chronic health conditions like asthma and depression. A diet lacking in calories, protein, vitamins and minerals will impede a child’s physical, cognitive and emotional development. Adults in food-insecure households have higher rates of developing chronic diseases such as arthritis, asthma, diabetes and mental health issues, as well as lower life expectancy.

The experience of living in poverty is debilitating—physically , yes, but on an emotional, psychological level too. Members of our communities are fighting every day against the strong currents that keep them down, and then also parenting in the midst of all the poverty-related stress. The need is now and that if nothing is done, there will be long-term consequences.

Siya Kolisi not only survived but flourished because his granny loved him—she gave everything for him, and because others in his community (a local rugby coach, a generous donor, friends) saw him and rallied alongside him in support, encouragement and opportunity. At Kids Matter, we recognise that confident parenting plays an important part in bridging the gap (between parent and child) created by poverty. Our mission is to equip mums, dads and carers facing disadvantage with the tools (confidence, competence, community) to build strong families even though they might wake up each and every day enveloped in uncertainty, fear, shame, depression and frustration.

We cannot wait for 14.5 million people (of which 4.3 million are children) to no longer be living in poverty before we come together in our efforts to raise children who will flourish in life.

It often saddens me that even though I looked poverty in the face each and every day in my homeland, I was callous and self-absorbed. But I am grateful to now work for an organisation with a mission to reduce the impact of poverty on children through community-based programmes and a vision to see every child in need raised in a strong family. At Kids Matter we cannot fix poverty but we can challenge poverty; we can raise our voice in unison against poverty and shine a light on visions for a more just, compassionate and opportunity-filled country.

To get involved, as a volunteer or by financially supporting Kids Matter’s programme, please contact us at info@kidsmatter.org.uk.

TLG enables and equips churches to bring hope to struggling children through holiday lunch clubs. Each club provides free, hot and healthy meals to children and families who would otherwise go hungry. Through Make Lunch, your church can provide vital support to some of the most vulnerable children in your community and, in addition, build relationships with families in desperate need of the loving support of your compassionate church family. Kitchens are run by volunteers who believe that even just one meal for one child could make a significant difference.

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