There are lots of times when the nightly news leaves me shaking my head in awe, in anger, or in anguish. But there are other times when some combination of news items creates such a profound sense of dissonance that it sticks with me for days or weeks, haunting my thoughts.
Recently I read two reports that individually were troubling, but together presented an odd and uncomfortable sense that something is utterly and terribly wrong with our society. Something at the core of who we are as people, or at least who we have become.
I’ll summarize both here.
The first report came in late September, though I did not end up reading it until early November. Smithsonian Magazine has a “Last Page” feature each month. In September the piece was entitled “Livin’ Large” with the subtitle “Everything’s bigger in America. You could look it up.” And this is exactly what the authors had done, compiling a list of facts about how much bigger things are in America these days. Here is a brief sampling of their points (Compiled by Jess Blumberg, Katy June-Friesen and David Zax for Smithsonian):
- The total U.S. Food Supply provides 500 more calories per day per person than it did in the 1970’s, an increase of 24 percent, according to the Department of Agriculture.
- In the 1960’s, the average chicken at slaughter weighed about three and a half pounds; by the min 1990’s, it had gained a pound. In 1966, a commercial cow at slaughter averaged 1,011 pounds; by 2006, it weighed 25 percent more, or 1,275 pounds.
- In fast-food restaurants, portions are two to five times larger today than in the 1980’s.
- In the 1964 edition of the Joy of Cooking, a recipe for chocolate chip cookies was said to yield 45 servings. In the 1997 edition, the same recipe was said to yield only 36 servings.
- Since 1980, the standard refrigerator has expanded 10 percent, to 22 cubic feet, and the standard clothes washer 25 percent, to 3 cubic feet, says the Association of Home Appliances Manufacturers.
- The Casket and Funeral Supply Association of America reports that standard caskets have grown from about 22 inches wide in the 1970s to 26 inches today.
Just days later I read another report, this one from the U.S. Agricultural Department. In mid-November they released their annual “Hunger Study.” The study’s primary finding was that more than 35.5 million people in America went hungry in 2006.
Let me pause to give you a frame of reference here. The U.S. population is roughly 301,200,000 people. That means that in 2006 roughly 12% of the people in America went hungry.
Here are a few of the other findings from that study (as stated in this article from the AP):
- Of the 35.5 million people, 11.1 million reported they had “very low food security,” meaning they had a substantial disruption in the amount of food they typically eat. For example, among families, a third of those facing disruption in the food they typically eat said an adult in their family did not eat for a whole day because they could not afford it.
- Among families, about 12.6 million, or 10.9 percent, reported going hungry for at least some period last year. Those disproportionately reporting hunger were single mothers (30.4 percent); black households (21.8 percent); Hispanic households (19.5 percent); and households with incomes below the official poverty line (36.3 percent).
- Of the 35.5 million people reporting periods of hunger last year, 12.6 million were children.
How do we make sense of these two things? How do we reconcile these two reports? Is it simply that the gap between rich and poor is becoming increasingly not only an economic gap by a dietary gap (I say becoming though it has always been more than simply economic)? Is it that the foods we are eating more of are supplying us with less of the nutrients we need? Is it that the cheapest foods to buy tend to be some of the worst foods to buy?
In the end, these two stories point out one simple thing. Things are terribly out of balance, and things desperately need to change. Our relationship to the food we eat has become abusive, drowning some and starving others. In the end, caught between the awful truth of these two stories one has to consider, what is our responsibility as individuals, as communities, as a country? How can these two problems be the first step towards each other’s solution?