Thursday, May 30, 2013

You can't tell who's hungry by looking

On a discussion group I'm part of, one person raised the question of how to teach children at a Vacation Bible School about hunger. One day at VBS, they are having a visiting missionary from an African country who suggested that for snack that day, they offer the children half a glass of water and half a cracker, telling them that in the African country where this person worked, this was considered a good meal. Was this, the person asked, a good idea?

The more I consider this, the more disturbing it feels to me, and the more certain I am that the answer is, no. This is a terrible idea.

What I wrote to the group is that we do not know if the children coming to our VBS programs are, in fact, well-fed. It may be that parents are sending children to VBS to provide them with snacks and child care. I think it's dangerous to presume that "they" are hungry and "we" are well-fed. All I can truly say is that I am well-fed. That's all I can know for sure. To deprive children of food in the name of teaching them a lesson seems morally dubious to me.

Just a few days ago, the Pew Research Center came out with a report that stated
Despite being the richest country in the survey, nearly a quarter of Americans (24%) say they had trouble putting food on the table in the past 12 months. This is up from just 16% who reported such deprivation in 2007, the year before the Great Recession began.
Share our Strength reports that 16 million children in the US experience hunger.
Nearly one in five children in America lives in households that struggle to put food on the table. They may look no different than other children; child hunger in America is often invisible. They are hurting, just the same.
I think we're too used to picture of hunger that are actually pictures of starvation. But the truth is, you cannot tell who is hungry just by looking. Does the child in this photo look hungry? What does "hunger" look like?

All those very useful exercises that show the relative availability of food from one part of the world to another can only make the point if you yourself are not aware of what it is like not to have food. To tell people who struggle to put food on the table, "Feel sorry about those people very far away"...well, I don't think it's a good idea. And since we do not know who is hungry and who is not, I think it is best to feed everyone.

There's a second part of this that disturbs me: what message are we sending about African nations if the only thing people ever hear about them is "for people in this country, a half a cracker is a good meal"? First of all, I am quite certain that there is more than one person in this country that actually has more than half a cracker for lunch. It is just as incomplete a picture to say "Everyone there is starving" as it is to say "Everyone here has plenty."

Finally, is there anything else we can learn about Africa other than "it's full of needy people and we need to help them"? Are there no values there that people can teach us? Is there not a good children's story from this country that could teach something to us about sharing or hospitality or friendship or anything? Is the only thing to know about Africa is that we should help them? Is there no mutuality? Or is it all Radi-Aid for Norway?

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