Sunday, October 7, 2012

What I've learned about Hunger

our son, then five years old, trying out a turkey leg

Last night we had a family dinner at a Chinese restaurant. The kind I remember from my childhood, with the burning hot pot of tea on the table and that big bowl of addictive crunchy noodles. Daniel has recently come to live Chinese food; he gorged himself on dumplings and fried rice and veggie delight. And like Eric Carle's caterpillar, that night he had a stomach ache.

Here is what I've learned about hunger. It changes a person, forever.  Being hungry, really hungry, for an extended period of time changes the brain's chemistry.  We are all wired to enjoy food, to seek out the sweetest, most nutrient rich food.  When the body has been denied proper nutrition for too long, the brain goes into a high alert state.  It is thinking, constantly, "food, food, now! food". Even after a person has again had reliable nutrition, the brain's high alert can be triggered, easily.

Our kids have both known hunger.  Our daughter was hungry for the first 8 months of her life.  Our son was probably hungry for much of his early life too- such is the fate of most rural Ethiopians.  They eat once a day if they are lucky, and never eat enough to feel full, except maybe during harvest days.

Getting enough to eat is a daily struggle for our Ethiopian family. They are all thin. They are all tiny.

Now our children are home, and they have more than enough to eat. They are Americans, after all.  But they have been changed by hunger.

Our son saw a pumpkin for sale and demanded that we eat it, now. Or at least make a pie. Food is not for art projects. It is food.

When they are hungry, even just a little hungry, their brains go into high alert. Food! Now! Food! Now! They cry, they wail, they scream.  They are starving again, and for them it is oh so very real.

We don't go anywhere without packing snacks. We don't go to the grocery store without packing snacks.  We don't drive without a snack for the car, and I always save a snack for the drive home.  We eat every couple of hours, no matter what.

I never say, oh, let's just wait til we get there. I never say, you'll be okay til we get to the restaurant. You might think, she's soon going to have obese children! But most of the time, a handful of raisins or a 1/2 a granola bar suffices. The brain is quieted.  It has avoided starvation, again.

It is easy for me to help my children recover from and manage their food insecurity. Imagine, though, an entire village, a region, a nation of people who have been hungry, who have nearly starved. Imagine how their brains will always, always, be on the alert for danger.  Imagine how difficult it would be for members of these communities to grow and trust and take risks.  Imagine how easily it would be for corrupt, power hungry leaders to trick their people.  Imagine how challenging it would be to live in an abundant world when you have know such scarcity.

I wish I could say that I have been changed by hunger too. That I never eat too much, that I savor every bite. That I never eat a handful of cookies just because I'm stressed out. I do. I'm still working on my own years in the making (sometimes poor) eating habits and chocolate addiction. But do I think about our Ethiopian family whenever I have to throw out food that simply been in the fridge too long? Yes. Every time.

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