Monday, April 8, 2013

Hunger Strike

Potatoes.  My dad hated potatoes.

Growing up in a Korean household, you eat a lot of varied things – a lot of things that most people would not consider “food” (Sea cucumbers? Congealed cow’s blood? Bellflower root? Yep, we ate them all.), but the one food item that never made an appearance? Potatoes.

It’s not that potatoes are not featured in Korean cuisine – there are plenty of recipes with them. It’s just that my dad hated them…to the point where he forbade my mom from ever buying them (Unless my brother-in-law was coming into the house. He was supposed to have potatoes. He’s Irish.) There was another reason: Hunger.

My dad was born on the island of Cheju in what is now South Korea.[1]  At the time of his birth, the island was occupied by Imperial Japan, during World War II.[2]  By the time my Dad was two years old, my paternal grandmother was working in Japan and my paternal grandfather, a radically independent fisherman with Communist leanings, had left to join the Kim Il-Sung’s Workers’ Party of North Korea. My grandfather was never to be seen again.
What did this mean for my father? It meant potatoes. Endless amount of potatoes. Rice was too expensive. Potatoes were cheap. And they were ubiquitous. For those living in the relative comfort of Seoul, food was to be found through the black markets of US Army provisions[3]. But for my father, growing up on an island that was believed to be a hotbed for Communist partisans, this meant NO food. Already on the threshold of severe famine, the burn-and-slash attacks by Nationalist guerilla groups had drained the island’s resources dry. Even fishing, which had sustained the island for years, was destroyed as American and anti-Communist Nationalist navies patrolled local waters.

While war is an obvious condition for food insecurity, what we have now in the United States seems unfathomable.  According to the latest statistics from the USDA[4], 15% of Americans, or about one in seven, are using the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (“SNAP”), better known as food stamps. Despite the “recovery” from the Great Recession of 2008, food stamp usage has remained relatively high, even rising 1.8% from January of 2012.

Food banks and pantries across the US are suffering in what seems to be the perfect storm for hunger: Smaller food donations and rising ranks of needy persons. Furthermore, tight demand for food has only made this condition worse. Under the Emergency Food Assistance Program, USDA buys excess food from suppliers and donates it to local food banks. In the past year, tight supplies, due to drought and skyrocketing worldwide demand, has decreased the amount of food USDA has bought for the program and thus the amount donated to food charities.[5] On the other hand, food banks have seen the demand for their services grow, in some places by double digits, as economic recovery has not meant new jobs for many. While the newest numbers by the US Department of Labor indicate a drop in unemployment from the recent all time high of 10% in October, 2009 to 7.6%,[6] as several economists have noted, the numbers don’t reflect the real story: many unemployed have been so discouraged by the job market, they have dropped out all together, only increasing the pressure on welfare benefits such as SNAP and Social Security.

But what the numbers can’t reflect are the poignancies of hunger. While the physical effects are obvious -- malnutrition, arrested mental and physical development for children, and higher rates of disease -- the psychological effects can and do last just as long. For every person on food stamps, using the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (“WIC”) or receiving a subsidized lunch at school, there is a story of pain, humiliation and mental anguish unassuaged even when or if they ever come off the welfare rolls. As seen in Ancel Keys’ famous study on the psychological effects of hunger[7], Keys noted that subjects were prone to disordered eating habits, vacillating between devouring their food or eating so slowly as to savor every last bit of food. While Holocaust victims exemplified the conclusions of Keys’ study, his observations are no less applicable to those living in food insecure homes now. Behaviors such as hoarding, gorging or hiding food last far longer than the physical pangs of hunger. And for many, the constant insecurity of not having enough food will mark their own sense of security for years to come.

And for my father, that insecurity came in the form of a lowly potato. It was not a vegetable destined to be a chip or a fry, but a lingering symbol of poverty and hunger. It was a constant reminder of a childhood that he would rather forget. For many of America’s children, parents and so many others, they could only wish hunger was such a distant memory. Unfortunately for them, it’s an ever-present reality that will only bring more scars than they can ever hope to bear now or in the future. With or without potatoes.

This post is part of Food Bloggers Against Hunger, a collaborative effort of over 200 food bloggers, The Giving Table, Share Our Strength and the documentary, A Place at the Table to bring awareness about hunger, protect SNAP dollars for hungry families and push for anti-hunger legislation in Congress. Want to do something to fight hunger? Click here to write to your Representative, Senator or elected official that you want to end hunger in America by maintaining and prioritizing anti-hunger initiatives in Congress.

This post has been cross-posted at the Huffington Post.

[1] Cheju Island, now a giant tourist destination for much of East Asia, was a small underdeveloped island, mainly populated by fishermen/women and small farmers in the early 20th century.
[2] Korea was annexed in 1910 by Imperial Japan. Much like the colonial empires of 19th and 20th century Europe, Japan sought to dominate the Korean peninsula for strategic purposes.
[3] My mother’s first introduction to cheese and mayonnaise was from the black markets in Seoul during the Korean War. As US troops filled the city, American foodstuffs, such as chewing gum, chocolate and yes, American cheese, were introduced for the first time in Korea.
[5] In 2011, the USDA bought 421million pounds of surplus food; in 2012, only 129. (Source, USDA).
[7] The study, dubbed the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, was done in 1944-1945, not only to study the psychological aspects of hunger and starvation, but also to help direct Allied relief efforst in post-World War II Europe. The results of the experiment were summarized in 1950 in Keys’ two-volume work, The Biology of Human Starvation. Keys, A.; Brožek, J.; Henschel, A.; Mickelsen, O.; Taylor, H. L. (1950). The Biology of Human Starvation (2 volumes). St. Paul, MN: University of Minnesota Press, MINNE edition.