Missouri State Representative Cynthia Davis, a Republican from O'Fallon, a St. Louis suburb with a median income 60% higher than the state average, recently criticized the state of Missouri's summer free lunch program for impoverished children in her monthly newsletter, saying that she thinks "hunger can be a positive motivator" for kids. Cynthia Davis argues that parents who have been laid off during the recession ought to be able to make do without government assistance:
Most parents put their children first, even ahead of themselves no matter what. If parents are laid off, that doesn’t mean they stop feeding their children, at least not any of the parents I know. Laid off parents could adapt by preparing more home cooked meals rather than going out to eat.
And she maintains that, if Missouri shuts down the free lunch program, children who find themselves going hungry will just be that much more motivated to feed themselves at no cost to the state by getting jobs at fast food restaurants:
Anyone under 18 can be eligible? Can’t they get a job during the summer by the time they are 16? Hunger can be a positive motivator. What is wrong with the idea of getting a job so you can get better meals?
Tip: If you work for McDonald’s, they will feed you for free during your break.
No word from Ms. Davis yet on what those Missouri families who were already unable to afford regularly going out to eat before losing their income to recession ought to do to "adapt" to their new lack of funds to buy food. No word either on what teenagers are supposed to do if there are no jobs available at the local McDonald's because all positions there have been taken by recently laid-off adults. Or on how these kids are supposed to get to work if they cannot afford, say, a car, given that the local public transportation system recently cut bus services. No direction from Ms. Davis on what "motivated" younger children who cannot work at McDonald's are supposed to do to feed themselves.
You never forget going hungry. Being hungry, well. That happens every day. As in, it's lunchtime. I'm hungry. Let's go out for a bite. I know a great little taco place down the street with fresh guacamole. That sort of feeling is commonplace. Forgettable. You don't always remember today what you ate for lunch three days ago, let alone the craving that drove you to eat in the first place.
But going hungry — that is a different story. That's waking up in the morning hungry. Feeling, throughout the day, hungry. Lying in bed not able to sleep just yet because you are hungry. Dreaming about feeling hungry.
And there is not any trip to the taco place down the street and not a trip to McDonald's instead and not a trip to the farmer's market or the grocery store, either, because there is no money for those things. There is not even the option of a trip to the backyard for some homegrown tomatoes or cucumbers or strawberries because there is no yard when you live in a run-down apartment or a shelter or a car.
There is only your hollow-eyed mother who is hungrier than you are dividing the last stale crackers to make them last. Assuming that you are lucky enough to have a mother. And crackers.
And the going part of going hungry means of course that you keep going this way. That despite the aching hollow in your belly and the listlessness that overtakes you brain, you do keep going — to school or to work or to the streets or at the least from one side of an empty room to another. You keep waking up in the morning and going about your day as best you can as if you were not hungry. Because the world expects it of you, because you are ashamed to admit you are hungry, because your body holds some sort of ancient optimism that there will be food again around some corner, because, after all, what else can you do?
You don't forget going hungry, and I know that you don't forget it because I was once a hungry child and some of my earliest and most indelible memories are of going hungry. Of feeling motivated by hunger. Motivated to suck on a lone slice of pickle for hours just to keep the feeling of food in my mouth. (I can still taste that pickle when I think about it. I was four.) Motivated to think that someone else's trash smelled like food. Yes, hunger motivates people.
Hunger — especially hunger that is not just their own, but belongs to their children — motivates women to stay in abusive or unhappy relationships. Hunger motivates children to shoplift, or to drop out of school to find work that is not always safe and not always legal. Hunger, I am sure, was one of the things motivating the 16-year-old boy who once stole my purse and a bag of groceries at knifepoint in a neighborhood where I myself had once gone hungry.
Hunger motivates families to argue and sometimes it motivates them to split up to qualify for better resources, or to split up just in order to not have to look one another in the face and see hunger. It motivates people to buy unhealthy food because it's cheaper and to binge on available food wherever they find it no matter the quality and to hoard and crave foods that are high in fat and calories, and so, ironically, hunger motivates obesity. Hunger motivates people to take drugs to forget about the threat of being hungry, or to sell drugs, in an attempt to never have to worry again about buying food.
Hunger motivates street children selling their bodies in Thailand (does Ms. Davis consider that meaningful employment?) and hunger motivates teenage terrorists in drought-stricken Afghanistan where decades of war have completely destroyed once-fertile farmland. Hunger motivates Mexican immigrants who risk their lives sneaking across desolate desert borders. Hunger motivates North Koreans in prison camps to sew uniforms for the army that oppresses them.
Hunger is a powerful motivator. But it is not always positive.
I would be lying if I said that my own thankfully brief experiences with childhood hunger did not motivate me to try harder in school as a potential path out of poverty. I would be lying if I said that my mother's fear of her children's hunger did not motivate her to fight her way to a better job and better wages.
But you see, it was the free school lunches I qualified for, in those early days, when I was hungry, that kept enough glucose in my brain that I could pay attention in my classroom. It was the knowledge that her children would still eat if she went back to school that allowed my high-school-dropout teenage mother to spend my early childhood finishing her college degree instead of working at McDonald's. State-sponsored food, given to me at a crucial time by the fine state of Missouri, helped lift my family out of poverty.
Being saved from hunger can be a positive motivator for children. As soon as I was old enough to realize what a debt of gratitude I owed my neighbors I felt motivated to pay it back in part by working to prevent their children from having to go hungry. By donating to food pantries. By promoting hunger awareness programs. By growing, once I had a yard to grow food in, more tomatoes and beans than my own family could possibly eat and walking up and down my mostly-working-class street handing fresh produce out to my neighbors for the past three summers. By figuring out without asking which of my neighbors have been visiting the food pantry since the recession hit, and happening to have healthy snacks on hand every time the children from those houses visit my house.
By voting in favor of funding to improve schools and school lunch programs. By voting to raise my own taxes (and yes, contrary to popular conservative belief about bleeding heart liberals, I do work, and I do pay taxes) to secure the welfare of my home state's children. By campaigning for candidates who share my view that no child in the United States of America should have to go hungry while we as a nation have an overabundance of food.
By campaigning against politicians like Cynthia Davis.
Hunger motivates people to do many things. But I think the most positive thing hunger has ever motivated me to do is to try to prevent other people from having to experience hunger.
Hunger is motivating me right now to write these words and that is why it is not the college-educated, professional, home-owning middle-class woman with a stable family and a full pantry who considers you now, Cynthia Davis, but the four-year-old girl whose memory lives inside me, for whom none of that blissfully food-secure future has yet been decided.
She thinks that you're being mean, and scary, and that you should not be allowed to make important decisions about the lives of a state full of children.
She also hopes your own children never have to know what it feels like to go hungry.