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Week 3: The Consequences of Hunger

Week 3: The Consequences of Hunger

Autry Fellow Joshua Mbanusi started the Live the Wage Challenge this month, living off a weekly income of only $290 per week - $77 after housing costs and taxes are deducted. This is the third in a four-part series of his reflections on life at the minimum wage.

This week I was able to maintain more money than at any point during the month of August, making this my most “successful” stretch throughout the challenge. Not only did I save more money, but I also tackled one of the most pernicious aspects of minimum wage life: hunger.

I make this pronouncement, however, with little excitement and no real sense of achievement.

I did not have a successful week because I mastered the art of “Good and Cheap” cooking, as recommended by a friend. I did not restrict my eating habits to an inexpensive, likely unhealthy, diet comprised mostly of the lowest quality fast food. And I certainly did not grapple with the cold scarcity that forces 1 in 7 Americans (46 million and counting) to rely on food pantries and meal service programs to feed themselves and their families.

Instead, my week was successful because I leveraged a set of networks and social gatherings that enabled me—albeit unintentionally—to access free food on my friends’ and co-workers’ dime. For example, on Friday my girlfriend hosted a social gathering—paid for by her employer. The leftovers graciously served as full meals for the rest of the weekend. On Wednesday, I attended a work-related public event that provided a light breakfast; for lunch, my company had a potluck that brought mouth-watering deserts and entrees. The next day, my lunch and dinner were covered by a new work connection and a former colleague. All in all, my third week of the challenge included eight free meals.

As I reflected on the good fortune that enabled me to secure eight nutritious, high-quality meals for free, I began to think more intentionally about food insecurity. In discussing the issue with co-workers, I was directed to the recently released Hunger in America 2014 report from Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks and hunger-relief advocates. Here’s a look at who’s receiving aid:

  • More than half (54 percent) of client households reported that at least one household member had been employed in the last year, which suggests that a large portion of Americans struggling with hunger may be the working poor—either underemployed or fully employed earning exactly or slightly above the minimum wage.
  • One in 10 adults receiving food assistance from Feeding America are currently in college.
  • 20 percent of households have at least one member that has served in the U.S. military.

The report focuses on the scope and consequences of hunger. The results are staggering:

  • 84 percent of Feeding America’s client households are food insecure, meaning that they were without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food at some point during the past year.
  • To cope with food insecurity, 79 percent of households report purchasing inexpensive, unhealthy food to feed their family.
  • Additionally, 69 percent of household clients reported having to choose between food and utilities, 66 percent reported having to choose between food and medical care (a subject I touched on briefly in my last blog), and 31 percent had to choose between food and education.

Additionally, Feeding America found that more than half (55 percent) of client households are enrolled in the SNAP benefits program, more colloquially known as food stamps. That means that in America, in 2014, there are people who may be working full time, or are enrolled in college, or have served in our military who are receiving support from the state, and still find themselves making the unconscionable choice between paying bills and feeding their kid—between having a routine medical check up and putting food on the table. This reality, in our country today, is jarring.

Despite this reality, there are those who doubt the salience of such public spending and boast of the purchasing power of minimum-wage work. It was this mindset, so disconnected from reality, that caused the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a Farm Bill that attempted to cut an unearthly $40 billion in SNAP spending over the next decade. (The final legislation includes $9 billion in cuts over 10 years, reductions that will severely decrease support for 850,000 families.)

Given my experience this month, I believe with even greater conviction that our country can do better. And there are efforts toward that end: recent USDA data found that the number of farmers’ markets accepting SNAP payments has grown from 753 locations in 2008 to over 5,000 in 2014, bringing more than $21 million worth of fresh produce to low-income families. Right here in Durham, two farmers’ markets have launched a Double Bucks program that matches SNAP spending dollar-for-dollar, totaling up to $20 in spending. These efforts are important because they promote the economic well-being and the social vitality of underserved communities. However, the nonprofit and private sectors alone cannot carry the mantle of fighting hunger in homes, especially not when record numbers of Americans are struggling to gain employment that pays a livable wage.

As active participants in our democracy, we have a clear choice on which set of investments most align with our spirit of compassion, which set of choices best exemplify an acknowledgement of our shared humanity. Let us make that choice and let us make it abundantly clear. We must all seek out what we can do in our communities to combat hunger on the frontlines; but, of course, we must remember that a part of this discourse takes place in statehouses and capitol buildings across the country. We must ensure that those conversations, and the subsequent action that follows, align deeply with the values we hold dear.

Follow Joshua Mbanusi on Twitter: @JoshuaMbanusi