“I am hungry”

23 Jan

Yin and Yang of world hunger by David Revoy

From Burbank to Bamako, chronic hunger does not discriminate in its ability to humiliate and break the human spirit.

For the last couple of years I have been deeply involved with a ground-breaking United Nations campaign to end global chronic hunger once and for all. As a film maker, I work closely with the Ending Hunger Campaign to create powerful, educational, and emotive visual content that can filter through all the communication noise and inspire youths in wealthy nations to apply pressure on their politicians to make ending hunger a priority. I have educated myself on the complexity of the hunger issue, so that I am not just another alienated “expert” in the mix, but that I am truly aware of what the problem is that we are trying to address, so the solutions we come up with are appropriate and effective.

A while ago it dawned on me that no matter how much I read about hunger, and regardless of how many workshops and focus groups I participated in around the issue, I had no first hand experience of it and therefore could never really fully understand it. And by hunger I am not talking about famine, which most people are familiar with thanks to Bob Geldof and Bono, but the ongoing, persistent state of hunger that kills you slowly. Chronic hunger that affects 1 in every six human beings.

I have never felt consistently hungry and so cannot truly empathize with those whose daily reality is precisely that painful, gnawing lack of sufficient nutrition. Hunger from my personal perspective is an exciting sensation, because the hungrier I feel the more pleasurable I know the experience of eating will eventually be when I get to it. Will it be a wholesome salad with a rich mix of nuts and a side of warm herb-infused bread drenched in olive oil, or hot, comforting soup with crunchy croutons? A fragrant Thai curry, or a rich, silky homous? And the hungrier you are, the more creative you are with a food solution.

It was the abstraction of the hungry that I felt was limiting my understanding of the problem. As involved as I was with the hunger issue, I had never personally met a hungry man, woman or child or had a meaningful conversation with a hungry person about what it really means to be chronically deprived of one of the basic ingredients of life. And I always imagined that if I did come across a hungry person, it would be in an impoverished country somewhere in Africa, Asia or South America.

But a few days ago I finally met my first hungry person  in an affluent commercial district in the city of Burbank in the greater Los Angeles area. I had just parked my car and was walking to Book Castle’s-Movie World shop on the San Fernando Boulevard in Burbank – a haven for film and publishing memorabilia that is just as crazy and random as the wide selection of things you can buy there for dirt cheap. Right before I crossed the street I brushed against a gaunt looking man in his 50’s wearing a light grey faded jacket, a black back pack, and thick glasses. He mumbled something to me which I automatically assumed was some sort of solicitation or request for money, and so paid little attention to him save for the polite shake of my head. I passed him and walked for a few yards before what he really said had registered in my brain.

“I am hungry”. He had said it just once. For a few seconds his words pierced my heart, not merely because of the vulnerability of the admission, but because I was confronted for the first time with a physical embodiment of the scourge that I have decided I would dedicate my life to help eradicate. And what struck me most was that never in my wildest imagination could I have imagined that the first hungry person I would meet would be in the most powerful nation on earth. It’s not that I was oblivious that hunger was also pervasive in affluent societies, but in my mind,  the image of hunger was burned by precisely the type of misleading visual communication that stereotyped and tied hunger in our minds to certain ethnic groups that I as a film maker was working tirelessly to change.

So I backtracked and faced him and asked “what did you just say?” to make sure I had heard correctly.

He looked down at  his worn out shoes almost ashamed to repeat the words again. “Did you say you were hungry?” I asked.

“I am beyond hungry,” he said, relieved that someone had heard him. He pointed to a sandwich shop across the street, right next to the Movie World shop I was heading to, and asked me to buy him anything to eat. “Whatever you can spare.”

I thought about that as well. How many times was his request for money to buy food shunned or belittled by passers-by who assumed that he was lying and would instead use the money to buy crack or beer, to the extent that he had now settled for just asking his potential benefactors to buy him the food themselves? The act of begging because you are hungry is already a humiliating experience. But just imagine how more degrading it is that you have to battle with cynicism against your plight and to delegate the process of acquiring your food to someone else. So I choose to give him money instead and asked him to buy whatever he wanted. I have the luxury of choosing what I want to eat, how I want to eat it and where, so why should I expect any less for him?

I crossed the street but remained intrigued by the encounter, and, I will admit it, a little skeptical. I kept an eye on him from across the street. Another woman had stopped to talk to him and also appeared to have giving him some cash. And sure enough he crossed to the sandwich shop as he said he would. I followed him there and peered inside the shop. I saw him walk up to the counter and place an order for food. He didn’t walk to a liquor store as conventional wisdom would have us believe, and he certainly did not pocket the money he made from me and the other woman while he continued to “work” his spot. He was hungry, and once given resources to acquire food, he fed himself. The look of security and happiness in his eyes as I spied on him from outside the sandwich shop is one that I am not going to forget any time soon.

To belittle the extent of hunger in America or the Western world is perhaps just as counterproductive as comparing it to the chronic hunger that affects the vast majority of the 1 billion hungry people who live in impoverished countries. Not only is it an unfair comparison, but it serves no benefit to solving the problem of hunger anywhere. Skeptics of first world hunger claim that a hungry man or woman in a country like America can make themselves visible in affluent areas and directly solicit the sympathy of their fellow citizens who, as my own experience would suggest, will react with generosity. On the other hand, third world hunger opponents argue that before wealthy countries like America can think of helping the poor and hungry in far away lands, that the problem of hunger at home should be addressed first.

But the reality for anyone involved with any degree of seriousness in the fight against hunger is that both these arguments are irrelevant. A hungry person is a hungry person, regardless of whether they happen to live in a rich or poor country. The fight to eradicate hunger is not about succeeding in one geographic locale over the other, but rather about eradicating hunger from the human lexicon and experience once and for all. Efforts to combat hunger are interconnected and complimentary. The national organizations fighting hunger in a country like America are not at odds or in competition with the intergovernmental organizations that focus more on impoverished countries.

And indeed listening to a hungry man confess his need and asking for your help will melt your heart, if you have one, just as potently if that man was in Burbank or Bamako.

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