The Memory of Hunger

A former co-worker of mine still struggles with what she calls the “memory of hunger,” which lingers with her from her childhood 40 years ago when her mother struggled to make ends meet in Mexico.

“When you’ve really experienced not knowing where your next meal will come from, if it will come at all, or gone to sleep night after night with an empty belly, you can become easily focused on the need to feel full. I think that memory of hunger is why some of us still struggle to maintain a healthy weight.”

If you are constantly afraid of losing that feeling of fullness, and I mean full enough to know it will get you through to the next day, it’s hard to have healthy eating habits, which require you to limit calorie intake not to fill up excessively. It could be that this memory, or the behaviors that accompany it, are even passed from generation to generation. It is well known that children in particular who have experienced chronic hunger can become hoarders of food, a survival instinct that can turn into a habit of secretly putting aside or hiding food to prevent being hungry later.

Cash flow and food access is also an issue. For many people living in poverty, and even some middle class folks, there are times of the month when they may have more access to a pay check, cash, food stamps, or food pantries. But the rest of the month they may struggle and have less food available. There is evidence that this type of fluctuation, especially over a long period of time, combined with our modern sedentary lifestyle, can actually increase the likelihood of becoming obese. There is further evidence that prolonged stress (running out of food every month compounded with other life pressures is very stressful!) contributes to overeating during the times of plenty, and eventually obesity.

Studies have also shown that food insecure women in particular are more at risk for obesity and a higher BMI (Adams et al, 2003).

During ancient times when most humans were hunter-gatherers, this feasting and fasting worked because the types of foods that were consumed (berries, nuts, lean protein) when combined with daily intense exercise (walking, running, hunting, gathering), allowed humans to develop the capacity to store energy for those leaner periods when food was not available. Our bodies still know how to store, but we don’t burn the calories because we are not eating healthy food and we don’t move enough.

Ironically seasonal workers, like farmworkers, who help put food on our tables by harvesting crops, are often at risk for food insecurity.

Here is one example of how this feasting and fasting might happen. I know a single grandmother raising her daughter’s 3 children. She works hard and budgets carefully to survive on an extremely limited income — a monthly income most of us reading this wouldn’t survive a week on. She works hard cleaning houses, as a “provider” for an elderly neighbor and making tamales on the side. She gets some assistance in the form of food stamps for two of her 3 grandchildren. She explains to me, “Much of the month we eat a lot of refried beans and rice, fideo noodles and flour tortillas I make by hand with flour and manteca (lard). That is the cheapest, most filling food I can find.

But when we receive the food stamps I feel like I need to reward the kids we stuff ourselves because we can. We buy donuts, chips, pizza, the fast food dollar meal — nothing fancy, but stuff they don’t get to eat most of the month and look forward to. During the school year it is easier making ends meet, because the kids eat two meals at school and I can skip lunch myself. In the summer I really have to stretch to cover our food all month because the little bit of cash I make has to go to rent, electric bill, water, and gas for my old car, or the bus when my car breaks down.

If I am honest, there have been times we have run out of food, but thanks to the generosity of a church food pantry and my neighbors we haven’t gone too hungry. I don’t buy a lot of fruits and vegetables because they are more expensive and don’t seem to fill the kids up as quickly. I do buy bananas and potatoes when I can.”

She boasts that despite their struggles, her grandkids are “gorditos” (chubby) because she makes sure they eat as much as possible when they have food in the house.

The common perception that overweight children are healthy children is a notion grounded in the past experiences of many adults who grew up hungry.

In fact, The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service 2014 study measuring food security in the United States reported alarming results showing that 1 in 7 Americans are food insecure. That is more than 48 million people, 1 in 4 children. Texas has one of the highest rates of its population food insecure in the nation, 17% as of a few years ago. Here in the Rio Grande Valley nearly 1 in 2 children in live at or below the federal poverty level and many are food insecure, according to the Rio Grande Valley Food Bank website foodbankrgv.com.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, Food insecurity is “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food. Hunger is an individual-level physiological condition that may result from food insecurity”.

Food insecurity is a fluid state where some time during a calendar year, a family has to make a decision between paying for housing, medical bills, or transportation to a job and buying nutritious foods for the family. This can fluctuate but for many people it is common to pay all their bills only to find little or nothing left for food.

The quality of food we eat can be as important as the amount. That is why local food pantries, and some food banks across the nation, are looking at what they hand out to folks and educating the recipients in tandem with the distribution, and why local gardening, urban farming and local food sourcing can be effective to address hunger while generating income and economic development. It is a challenging, complicated issue that we can’t ignore, especially in this community where we have some of the highest rates of poverty alongside the highest rates of obesity in the nation. We all need to work to create healthy, local food options accessible to all because Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!)

To volunteer, donate or for more information about hunger in the Valley go to www.foodbankrgv.com or call (956)682-8101.