Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Hunger and Poverty Here and Everywhere, A Tragedy that Can and Should Be Averted

The Psychological Effects of Poverty and Hunger
By Connye Griffin

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is a novel taught in middle and high schools across this nation. Most then will remember Atticus Finch’s advice to his daughter Scout: you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Atticus wanted both his children to become less prone to snap judgments and rash actions, lessons that most parents would endorse.

Still judging others seems to be a part of all human interaction. Shaking their heads in dismay, neighbors doubt the wisdom of painting a house any shade of purple. They go to court over the heights of fences and reject the company of those who do not follow standard community dress codes.

One segment of society subjected to stern judgment is the poor class. Such stern voices can be heard here at the Lake. Two prominent criticisms heard often are: 1) why do poor people use precious monetary resources for unhealthy foods or cigarettes and 2) why do poor people waste money on frivolous things? One answer to both is that poor people are as human as those in the middle class and above.

Studies related to willpower and its effects upon diet, exercise, and brain development have helped many understand why people in general and for the purposes of this article, poor people in particular, use precious monetary resources for what many deem inessential items. Since the 1990s and over the course of 13 years, researchers have replicated experiments with similar results, learning that “exerting self-control on an initial task impaired self-control on subsequent tasks: Consumers became more susceptible to tempting products; chronic dieters overate; people were more likely to lie for monetary gain; and so on.”

Most people will recognize themselves in the mirror of those experiments; indeed most people have indulged themselves after a particularly trying day at work when they had to exert self-control just to get through the day. Those people may have chosen to eat and drink in excess as a reward or way of comforting themselves. The poor do the same except that they are required to exert self-control more often, for more consecutive days, and perhaps with no end in sight. Thus, when SNAP benefits arrive or a bit of extra cash weighs heavily in a pocket, the comforts are potato chips, fatty foods, cigarettes, and perhaps beer.

The answer to the second question derives from the same body of research. Chronic, unrelenting deprivation increases the desire for relief found in food, sweet and/or alcoholic beverages, and other means of self-medication. Furthermore, choosing wisely requires confidence in the belief that circumstances can and will improve through sustained effort. Change demands the ability to hold out hope for a better future, but research suggests that “Poverty may reduce free will, making it even harder for the poor to escape their circumstances.”

For example, the poor must often choose between paying the rent to secure a shelter or taking a child to the doctor, buying food for the family or buying enough gasoline to drive to work, showing up for a shift at work while sick or risking termination to stay home and get well. These are lose-lose choices; they weigh heavily upon the heart and mind, so much so that the ability to choose well and wisely becomes impaired. Worse, when forced to make such choices again and again, the poor may lose hope of ever changing their circumstances. Consequently, they may take comfort in frivolous things and events. Doing so is human, an affliction within us all. For the poor, the consequences compound and confine.

Should Society Rescue Hungry Children Living in Poverty?

Few would dispute the fact that some parents cannot or will not provide good homes in which children thrive. The question for us all is what to do about it. Answering that question requires information about the effects of hunger and poverty.

First, children would ask that citizens hold them harmless. After all, the children did not choose to be poor and hungry, and they can do little to change their circumstances. They are poor and hungry by an accident of birth.

Second, recent research has allowed us to understand the effects of poverty on the children’s developing brains. One study pursuing the conclusions drawn from older, historical research found that “severe psychological and physical neglect produces measurable changes in children’s brains.” Like those challenged by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the brains of poor and traumatized children show that the hippocampus has atrophied.

The healthy growth of the hippocampus is crucial for it “regulates emotional responses, [and] is critical in the formation of memory and spatial awareness.” Its role then is linked to the ability to perform in school. Children need to believe they can remember in order to also believe in their abilities to learn. In addition, they must be emotionally equipped to weather group settings and restrain their impulses, choosing positive emotions and accompanying actions.

Poor children are under duress to succeed. They experience stress at levels higher than other children because they experience food insecurity, evictions, and school transfers more often than their classmates from middle and upper class homes. Poor children are often bullied because they are marginalized as the newcomer or the child that wears the same clothes or arrives at school on cold days without a coat for warmth.

Third, food deprivation is as significant as poverty. Without proper, sufficient nutrition, children may not take in vitamins and minerals vital to their development. They may also be scarred psychologically because they are “the other,” the ones who do not have money for snacks or a family that sends them to school with good lunches. They recognize the physical sensation of being hungry and know that their classmates do not experience that sensation chronically. Being hungry and different simply adds to the child’s stress.

Finally and perhaps most important is the effect of hunger on a child’s ability to learn. Children themselves speak to their own despair when hungry. They report that they feel distracted, unable to concentrate, unable to care about lessons. Hungry children are also more susceptible to illnesses, leading to absences from school and perhaps grade jeopardy.

Josette Sheeran, head of the United Nations’ Food Program in 2011, reports that children who lack adequate nutrition in the first 1,000 days of life will never recover from its lack. Haunted by a child’s cry that cannot be assuaged with food, Sheeran asserts that the world has food resources sufficient to end hunger. She challenges the world to do so.

Meeting the Needs of Hungry Children and Families in Camden County

Deanna Martin is a counselor at Oak Ridge Elementary. She and her counterparts in Camden County schools insure that no child goes hungry; they facilitate and oversee the Buddy Pack program at 7 county elementary schools. Oak Ridge, like many schools across the nation, has a clothes closet, too, stocked by the dollar and goods donations of its patrons.

Martin believes that those who question the Buddy Pack program should focus upon the children. She says that she doesn’t care if the parents spend money unwisely; her mission is to make sure no child goes hungry, especially over the weekends when school meals are not available to them. Martin adds that “it’s easy to let go of judgment” when people focus upon the needs of children. She’s sorry that some people think that the actions of the parents weigh in the scales of sating a child’s hunger.

Thanks to The Food Bank, Camden County schools do not have to collect food for the Buddy Packs, but in years past, when the Food Bank’s stores ran low, county teachers were asked to bring in food, using their own pantries and dollars to do so. They did, of course. As has been often stated, teachers spend some of their own relatively modest salaries to prop up and teach children.

Oak Ridge opened its Clothes Closet last week to distribute winter coats and jackets to 37 students who might otherwise have arrived at school cold. Martin herself took another child to buy long pants; the child owned nothing other than Capri-length pants and thus, her ankles were cold. These are standard procedures in area schools striving to foster confidence and health in children while also preparing them for a competitive future.

Counselors and teachers fill backpacks with 1 shelf-stable milk, 2 entrées such as ravioli, 2 servings of cereal, 2 shelf-stable fruit servings, and one snack. Once each month, the children also take home a jar of peanut butter. Without these packs, some children simply would not eat on weekends. Teachers learn this by observing and by being available to listen when children tell them about being hungry at home. After a teacher or counselor referral, children begin to receive Buddy Pack supplies with no other screening required.

The Food Bank is able to provide supplies because of donations and partnerships with General Mills, WalMart, Socket and Kraft. Buddy Packs are therefore a privately funded resource with corporate backing. They fill in the gaps left between minimum wage work, publically funded programs such as SNAP, and human need.

A different local Westside mainstay for adults and families who need help feeding themselves is Share the Harvest Food Pantry, located in Greenview, just a short drive past the intersection of Highways 7 and EE. Share the Harvest receives 50% of its supplies from the Food Bank and 35% from area groceries including WalMart, Woods, and Gerbes. The remaining 15% comes from the generosity of people and sweat equity. Sheila Morse pays a lot of that equity. She’s in charge of the garden. On the day we visited, Morse was picking and washing kale in the greenhouse to add to the produce available for 1,000 families numbering 3,000 people who eat because of and from Share the Harvest’s bounty.

Director Judy Wimmer reports that 20% of the people shopping at Share the Harvest are elderly. Many are physically and/or mentally challenged. The rest are wintering without unemployment benefits because if hired as a seasonal employee, that person does not qualify for unemployment or any other benefits. Wimmer notes that seasonal employment or the recreational and entertainment industries are the biggest employers here at the Lake, but most of those jobs pay minimum wage, a wage that does not allow people to save or afford much nutrition.

Both Wimmer and Martin are adamant that no one should begrudge children living in poverty a helping hand or a full stomach.

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Thank you for reading this blog and some of the 198 posts. Al and I appreciate your comments and "likes." Look for Al Griffin's continued commitment to the homeless through posts to Google+. Look for Connye Griffin's thoughts about literature, film, and life on the blog titled My Writing and Editing Coach. We have found it necessary to retire this blog as we develop a collaborative one about our new home in Central Missouri.