Those of us who run and ride tend to understand hunger in terms of managing how much we eat for fuel and performance. We eat to run and ride and swim, or else we hit the wall, bonk or sink. Yet if we eat more than we need for fuel, or eat the wrong kind of foods (carbs, sugars and certain kinds of fats) it means we slow down and/or gain weight.
So it’s a balance of wanting to eat and then fighting off hunger pangs even when we don’t need to eat. Then there’s comfort eating, or pigging out for stress relief. The whole hunger issue for athletes can be complex.
But take a moment and think about the other side of the coin. There are millions of people in America for whom food security is a real problem. Recently it was documented by Sports Illustrated that there are hundreds of thousands of genuine athletes who are homeless, for example. Homelessness is related to poverty, which has a close relationship with hunger in America.
Cynically, some politicians and commentators view hunger through an ideological lens that says poverty and hunger are the product of an inferior spirit or laziness. Such issues can be very complex, especially when religious or political leaders throw ideology around in any sort of literal way. For example: John 6:35 NIV “Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
If taken literally, that passage makes it sound like all you need to do is pray and Jesus will shovel food your way. But of course that’s not the entire meaning of the passage at all. The “bread of life” is as much about spiritual hunger as it is about material needs.
Material and spiritual hunger
Instead the bible instructs believers on a consistent basis to regard material hunger as a spiritual mission of great importance. Matthew 25:35-40 “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink…”
And of course Jesus responds that whatever we do for the least among us, especially the hungry, we also do for him.
But it is not the religious alone who help the hungry in America. Nor is it left to politicians alone to decide who gets fed. There are people whose convictions lead us down a practical and righteous path to save people from hunger on a daily basis. Such is the mission of the Northern Illinois Food Bank, whose staff and a large group of volunteers gathers and distributes food to thousands and thousands of families each year. Here’s why (content from the NIFB website)
“Nearly 600,000 people each year in our 13-county service area rely on Northern Illinois Food Bank and our network of 800 partner food pantries and feeding programs. While in FY14 Northern Illinois Food Bank provided the equivalent of 50 million meals to our hungry neighbors, the sad fact is it’s not nearly enough. According to Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap study, each year our hungry neighbors are at risk of skipping 70 million meals, simply because they don’t have enough food for three meals per day.”
Making it happen
To make all that happen takes tons of volunteers and hours of packing and moving food through the organization’s facilities in Geneva, Illinois. It is estimated that to staff the work of the volunteers would take more than 80 full time employees. At an annual salary of $40,000 for such manual labor, the budget of the Northern Illinois Food Bank would need to expand by $3.2M.
While creating jobs might be a great way thing to do, that money would have to come through donations because NIFB is a non-profit organization. And as noted from the incredible need for food in northern Illinois, the money and food donated now goes directly into feeding families in need. Even working families have trouble making ends meet. Often their wages are insufficient to provide food security.
Recently a group of volunteers from a chapter of BNI (Business Networking International) joined the effort at NIFB headquarters. Our assignment was to move bulk cereal into bags, seal and box them for distribution. 25 BNI members and children formed a team, one of six or so groups working at the NIFB that night.
Within the group we were divided into assignment teams and got our instructions. For two hours the movement and conversation was frenetic and fast-paced as more than 100 boxes of 12 bags each moved through the clean room assembly line. Hair nets and aprons were the dress of the day, and age did not matter. Everyone had an opportunity to pitch in at their skill level.
My personal assignment was sealing the bags, a test of dexterity made challenging by the fact that the machines had a tendency to melt right through the plastic if you paused too long in the double-seal process.
It brought to mind a number of challenging manual labor jobs over the years. It took full concentration to double seal those bags and keep ahead of the new bins of unsealed cereal bags arriving by the minute.
I could not help thinking back to a moment during high school when the vocational school had us take tests to see if we were suited for manufacturing work. There were dozens of little screws and bolts and washers, and I sucked at repetitive work. My coordination is good but my concentration could wander back then. Plus I wondered if there was some intimation of academic failure at work. With a D in Spanish at the time, I was worried the school thought I was an intellectual dolt.
Now I’ve learned to dial in and that was the modus operandi for the night. Don’t let distractions take your mind off the task at hand.
Yet I could not help thinking about that food and who would eat it. Granted, it was only Reese’s Puffs cereal. You could make all sorts of judgments about whether that’s the right way to feed the hungry. But then you’d point the finger right back at yourself, because we all have want and need of different types of food. Some of us even munch energy bars made from real stuff that constitutes fake food. So it’s a confusing mess here in America.
There are many types of food handled by hunger missions in America. Nutrition is not cut short if at all possible. Considering how much food is donated and how much money is raised to cover and distribute it, these types of questions aren’t really practical to answer when you’re bagging dozens of bags of Reese’s Puffs. Still, my brain kept working…if there were 500 puffs in each bag, and I packed 200 bags, that makes 100,000 individual Reese’s Puffs out the door and into the hungry mouths of people all over northern Illinois.
I like Reese’s Puffs. I’ll still eat them if I see them again. But we were a little tired of the peanut butter and chocolate smell. By the end of the night, a bit worn out from that marathon of packing puffs, I paused to think that I’d learned a few things about endurance and concentration over the years. Much of that dedication to task was learned through the concerted effort of running and riding. It teaches us to stick with the job until it’s through.
Looking the other way
But of course it will require a lot more concentrated effort to assuage hunger in America. Our nation has a bad habit of looking the other way and even attacking its weakest citizens when it comes to wrestling matches over political power and authority. The Rush Limbaughs of the world consistently set out to confuse real issues with false pretexts. Based on his many assertions that there is no hunger in America, such a man would have us think that everything that besets the hungry in America is a result of their poor nature and character.
Yet that’s not what we find in scripture. Luke 6:20: “Looking at his disciples, (Jesus) said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
Which means it is all our responsibility to create that kingdom of God here on earth. It is not our job to sit back cynically and mock the poor or find political motivations for their need. It is ours to pitch in and help, and let answers to the spiritual questions be defined by our willingness to first help, and then help again.