Thursday, November 17, 2011

Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week

My university hosted its fifth annual Fast-a-Thon this past Tuesday to raise money for the local food pantry, as part of Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. Basically how it works, is students donate part of their meal plans (how much is up to them), and theoretically fast for the day, and then break their fast with a banquet featuring food from a local restaurant and speeches from various people. Last year, they raised over $14,000, which was more than half of the food pantry's budget for the year. This year, the total was at least $13,000, though that was before last count.

I think it's amazing that students at the university are willing to support the larger community in such a substantial way.

But. There were some things about the event that made me uncomfortable, even resentful. I don't think this is their fault. It's not really anyone's fault. But I heard several times over that part of the purpose of fasting was so that participants experienced in a tiny way what it was like to skip a meal, and be a little hungry. The event organizers never acknowledged that some of their own peers might already know what this is like. I am one of them.

My family is poor. When I go home for the summer? I'm an extra mouth to feed, and my mother won't let me help out with bills too much because I have expenses like textbooks to pay for come fall. My step-father, at least until recently, was living with her, and spending almost all of his extra income on himself, primarily in the form of booze.

So we all go a little hungry by the end of the month, and every time my brothers visit and my mother feeds them, I fight jealousy that they eat so much in one serving, usually enough for two meals for me or three for my mother. I know that my brothers don't cook, or have time to make nutritious meals because they work a lot of hours. But still, when it got to the end of each month, and the cabinets were getting low on food, with no possibility of snacks in between meals, I resented the fact that they ate the food, too. Because I was a little hungry, all the time. I would eat loads of extra food the first week of each month, just because the food was there.  I felt like I was binge-eating, eating too much. What I was doing was playing catch-up.

By the time I came back to school this semester, I had lost at least five pounds due simply to not eating enough. I'm slender and small-boned, and naturally thin. I don't have that much weight to lose. Point of fact, I was glad to gain the weight back once I had access to campus dining halls again.

This is hunger. This is an effect of poverty. It's upsetting that I look forward to the start of each school year primarily because it means I have complete control over my diet again. I can have salads every day of the week, with every meal if I so choose. I can have non-meat meals, kosher meals, parv meals, dairy meals, pizza, burgers, chicken, ice cream, baked goods, bananas, apples...whatever. I should be looking forward to Fall semester because I'm excited for class, which I am, but that excitement is overshadowed by the need to eat well and often.

My university is one of the most expensive schools in the country, and I'm here only because of substantial financial aid. I know I'm not the only one in this kind of situation, but I often feel like the percentage of us who are low-income are under-acknowledged on this campus. Campus-wide events are geared toward the majority of people who are paying out-of-pocket or otherwise to come here. Family weekend, Commencement week...Those are expensive, run into hundreds of dollars per attendee, and almost all of the programs during that time are geared for rich parents. This past Family Weekend, the First Generation College Student Coalition organized a brunch for those of us whose parents had been able to come, although they acknowledged that that was a very low number. I was off campus due to power issues, but I think it's great that this happened. First-Gen was started by students like me who had worked one of the weeks and noticed the lack of programming for the families of poorer students. In some ways, I feel like they're making us less invisible. In other ways, we're just as invisible, to everyone who isn't us, as before.

Because like I said, no one ever seems to notice that some of their peers have very little spare cash. They don't know that some of us have experienced hunger personally, that some of us send money we make at our campus jobs back to our families, that our families can never make it to campus to visit us and to take us and a couple of our friends out to eat, and in fact that it's often the reverse--the few times my family has come to campus, either for a performance or to help me move in or out, I've treated them to food from the all-you-can-eat dining hall (and then had one of them repeatedly make sure it was okay to go back for more food, because he didn't want to get me in trouble).

This is poverty. This is hunger.

And this is privilege, too. While I'm here on this campus, I have a roof over my head, more food than I can possibly eat, free medical services, an amazing support system, and a job. I struggle to fit in here, yes, but just being here is a privilege, one I worked hard for and appreciate every day.

I'm not homeless. I'm not hungry.

At least not today.

But what about tomorrow?


  1. Hey Shauna. I wanted to let you know that I'm reading and reflecting.

  2. I think it's another thing that, due to upbringing, or societal views on the matter, is thought of as, "We did our part during X event, we can safely ignore the problem now."

    I'd almost say it sounds like an even to try and buy good karma, but I'm more than a bit cynical at the moment.

  3. This makes me really sad. I remember in college in Arizona (US) that it was difficult for a student to qualify for any aid: food stamps, medicaid, ect, because I tried to qualify for some of those things. It was like the government was unable to recognize that college students can be poor. Not broke, but poor.
    I'm not sure what to do about raising awareness and beyond. Any suggestions?

  4. @aforalpha-Thank you for the comment. It's good to know someone is reading.

    @Tuldas-I don't have anything to add that we didn't discuss over IM.

    @FarmerStina-There are still weird things having to do with being in college and from a poor family. For example, I probably qualify to claim independent on tax forms, but if I do, the Education Tax Credit? is 1/10th of the amount they would give my parents for claiming me as a dependent, and it only applies because I'm under 25. It baffles me, because it's like the federal government doesn't acknowledge that there might be poor college students whose families can't support them, but who need the credit just as much as the family would. [Also, as an aside: I don't qualify for medicaid, despite being disabled and poor. If my school didn't give me health insurance, I wouldn't have any at all.]

    As for raising awareness, I have no ideas. I suspect it would require asking people to examine and reject major parts of our cultural narratives about the poor and working class. And that always works out well, right? /snark