Food is power. We don’t think about this in the bountiful west very often except perhaps on the rare occasion when stuck for a long time behind a woman with WIC coupons in the grocery line as she purchases infant formula and arrowroot biscuits with large individual coupons that must be tallied separately so Uncle Sam can be assured that she is spending the money appropriately. By choice, most of us eat, diet, fast or feast without giving too much thought to those who go without, and more importantly, the effect this has on the lives of those who go hungry.
In sorting through my old photographs, the concept of food and power seemed summed up to me in this photograph. The woman is a spice and pulse vendor in downtown Kathmandu not far from temple square. The gorgeous, fiery red of her sari is so attention getting that one might not notice the long stick she is holding in her right hand. Although caught in a pleasantly passive moment, at other times she wields that stick expertly and fiercely to beat hungry children away from her bags of rice and legumes. If she catches them, they will be left with a painful red welt on their legs or arms. But the hunger is so strong and so pervasive that they keep on coming all day; day after day. A Handful here and a handful there and by the end of the day they might have enough for their mother to boil into a gruel that will keep them alive for another few days.
Many of us believe that fasting by choice for religious reasons separates us from the material world and brings us closer to God. Our Muslim brothers and sisters all around the world have spent all the days of the last month fasting to commemorate Muhammad receiving the Qur’an from the Angel Gabriel. In many cultures valuable animals are sacrificed and removed from the agricultural food chain and offered instead to sustain the deities and coax them to bestow favor on those who sacrifice. Nepal’s beautiful but bloodthirsty Kali drinks the blood and the bad spirits but leaves the meat to those who feed her. When you visit her temple, you step down into a sunken courtyard and immediately sense the recurrent carnage like flashes of lightning from the past. Today it may be meticulously clean, but on festival days the courtyard swims with the blood of innocents. Isn’t it odd that we rarely bestow any special piety on those whose poverty forces them to go without food? It seems that it is not going without food that brings us closer to the divine; it is rather the purposeful election of starvation that confers special status.
Going without food by poverty or the force of destiny also removes people from the human plane of existence. However, it doesn’t bring them closer to God, if they are still strong it builds in them a steely will to survive at any cost. They beg, they steal a bit to eat here and there if they have to, they pick through the waste heaps that the prosperous leave behind when the markets and restaurants close, or they eat things that well-nourished people wouldn’t dream of eating – items that have little nutritive value but that fill the belly. Over time they can become unhitched from the wagon of laws and customs that we have all agreed help to make us human and become something less. No not an animal, in the strict scala naturae that our world clings to, that would be too harsh a fate. Instead they become something in between a human and an animal and are beaten off with a stick when they steal a handful of peas from a well-to-do vendor.
In addition to subtly changing their plane of existence, hunger denies them the ability to realize their potential as human beings. Because they must beg, borrow or steal all day to try to keep themselves and usually their families alive, they cannot work for the joy of achieving something, or go to school or learn a skill that will help lift them out of the well of poverty they reside in. Worse than all that is that they are keenly aware of all that they are missing out on. When children wealthy enough to go to school march by in their crisp, matching uniforms, the children of beggars know that theirs is another slice of life that they will never taste. It is daunting to consider how much hunger robs the world of human potential, but think for a moment that any one of the children pilfering a handful of rice or selling themselves on the streets could be a great thinker or a talented musician. Shudder to realize that none of us will ever read their novel or hear them sing.
We aspire towards the elevated status that elective starvation brings, but the disparaged state that poverty’s starvation brings, disturbs and frightens us. We seek other, negative labels for it to help us overlook what is really taking place. We call them urchins, rogues, beggars or thieves instead. In giving them a negative label we are also ascribing blame for the poverty. We lie to ourselves and say that their poverty it is their fault, this provides us the cover we need to walk to the next market stall – you know, the one selling arts and crafts.
In most of the developing world, the poor are thin and the wealthy are . . . beefy. Not necessarily fat, but taller, broader and better muscled than the small, wiry poor. Not too long ago, this was also the situation in the developing west. The poor were generally thin and the wealthy were heavy. So when Tevya sings about his fantasy of a rich man’s wife, “with a proper double chin,” in Fiddler on the Roof, he means it. In the 20th century, when the food supply became more plentiful, the poor could and did afford to pack on pounds. The rich, who had always been fat, did as Dr. Seuss’s Sneeches did and found new ways to physically identify themselves at a distance – they began to starve. Just beyond mid-century, the mantis-like figure on the woman standing next to you no longer belonged to a poverty stricken one, this one was rich – or at least her husband was. In the west, we no longer associate food with power and wealth; rather it is the lack of food that stinks of social dominance. But it is not really the lack of food that confers the special status, is it? It is having all of the best food that money can buy, but choosing not to eat any of it. It’s that pesky free-will rearing its head once again.
It is interesting to me that as women’s real power in the world has increased in leaps and bounds the size of an “ideal woman” has shrunk. As women have been allowed education and the right to work and have begun to make important strides in politics, in science, in media and entertainment and in nearly every other field of endeavor that they’ve entered into, the fashionable size for women has shrunk to the point of non-existence. Literally, most actresses and models aspire to be a size zero – or perhaps a two. One of the greatest western beauties of the 20th Century – Marilyn Monroe – was a size 14, but that is considered fat by today’s standards. And we all know that fat now equates with a poverty not only of plate but of character, because the wealthy would have had the control to forego a few meals to fit the latest frock. So it is our choice or control to starve – our will-to-starve – that elevates us above the human condition or the social order and our lack of choice in the matter that denigrates us.
The FAO estimates that over 850 million of the world’s people lack food security and almost two billion do not have reliable food security, or have reason to fear hunger because of intermittent bouts of poverty. That’s almost one third of the planet’s human population that worries about where its next meal is coming from – at least from time to time. To personalize this, imagine going into work some morning and seeing one in every three people you work with in some state of starvation. Some of your colleagues are lying on the floor of their offices too weak to move, others have few outward signs of the plague that afflicts them – except of course for that air of quiet desperation. Are these people – people you know – suddenly less than human? Could you ignore them and go quietly about your business?
Perhaps we should one day simply say that poverty and the hunger that often accompanies it is no one’s fault. It is not some karmic retribution for misdeeds in a previous lifetime; it is not the fault of the rains that didn’t come; it is not the fault of prosperous “imperialist” states for bad political choices or multinational corporations for seeking to profit from the sales of seed and fuel needed to farm and it is not even the fault of predatory home rulers. Let us quit the blame game and instead play for solutions.
Long-term answers do not lie in new global resolutions, goals or initiatives – although these efforts help to raise both consciousness and funds. The best response is one that starts small but grows outward gaining momentum as it spreads – like a lone drop of water that falls into a pond spreading ripples to all shores. Imagine something simple like every man, woman and child who had enough to eat tonight contributing the equivalent of one dollar to end poverty and hunger. In the United States alone, almost 275 million dollars would be raised with that one -time act. Consider the impact of this around the world and the amount of money raised in an instant of time would easily rise into the billions. Think about it the next time you’re in the grocery line behind the woman fumbling with her government coupons to buy food for her children. Better yet, don’t just think about – do it. (Words and Photographs by Laura Kelley).