My mind did the most unfortunate thing today: it made a connection. I’m officially sick of black beans and rice. So much so, that my brain has now connected the smell of black beans and rice to the smell of my daughter’s urine soaked diaper. With a blind fold on, and through smell alone, I think I would fail to identify which is which if they were laying before me. Appetizing, right? The fact that I lost my appetite over this idea, led to an even more profound connection for me: I’m a spoiled brat, and I don’t know squat about what it means to be hungry.
Chronic hunger and obesity are forms of malnourishment a person can never just pick up and understand. They are the long term effects of the inability to eat, think, and live in the presence of healthy food. People who suffer from chronic hunger do not have access to a healthy lifestyle, while those who are overweight and obese have been forced to devalue it.
1 billion people on the planet are chronically hungry right now. Another 1 billion are not hungry or even overweight, but are malnourished from eating nutrient deficient foods like chips, candy, soda, poor carbohydrates, and food lacking vitamins and protein. And then we have another 1 billion who are overweight or obese because of the systemic lack of food value in their lives.
Like the majority of Americans, I’ve got about 10 pounds I can lose to get to a healthier weight for my body type. In fact, 3 billion people would have been significantly healthier today had they eaten my bowl of rice and beans instead of me. So how can something this valuable to me and so many other people be so non-appetizing to me? Shouldn’t my body crave that which is healthy? Isn’t that part of the survival instinct?
Five years ago I was in South Africa visiting family and completing the practicum for graduate school and the requirements for ordination as a minister. The focus of my education and practicum was HIV/AIDS treatment and advocacy by faith-based non-profit organizations. South Africa has the highest population of people living with HIV in the world (second is India, because they have 1 billion people in their country, but the prevalence rate is low). I visited a few townships in South Africa. Townships are small rural towns originally built during apartheid to keep white and black apart. A case worker introduced me to people in the townships who were charged with serving orphans and vulnerable children. The townships had an HIV prevalence rate of at least 60%. Complicating the situation was that most people did not have access to medication to treat their illness, so it was spreading rapidly, symptoms were not being treated, and it was destroying local economies and families. In the United States, social workers serve in many different types of fields. They can work in a school, a nursing home, a hospital, an aid agency, or a family services organization. They serve every age group and demographic. In South Africa this isn’t the case. Social Workers have time for only one thing: relocation of children orphaned by AIDS. AIDS is running rampant in South Africa to such a high degree that cases of domestic abuse cannot be addressed appropriately because the system is too busy trying to figure out what to do with all the children who have been orphaned.
I went to a Kindergarten to visit a few of these children and speak with care providers to better understand the situation. Like most children in Africa, they love visitors, so I could barely walk through the crowd of excited bodies pushing up against me. Surrounding me were bright faces full of energy, enthusiasm, and joy. We played games, danced, talked, and joked with one another. Yet, something was off. I looked around me and started to notice that I was being greeted by big smiles, but they weren’t bright smiles. They were the smiles of children who suffered from tooth decay, gingivitis, and broken teeth. After leaving I asked the case worker what was going on with their poor oral hygiene. She told me it was due to increased access to sugary sodas and candy, but that the children didn’t own toothbrushes at home. Their parents never learned the value of brushing their teeth, because the it was considered a luxury and not essential for a diet composed mainly of vegetables and corn meal. The children also suffered from tooth decay, because they were malnourished, which prevented their teeth from receiving the appropriate levels of vitamins and minerals to make them strong; hence, the broken brittle teeth. This blew my mind. For me, hunger had always been something I associated with the stomach; a stomach ache from not eating enough, or just being too tired. It never dawned on me that it was a full body problem that could even impact tooth decay.
Later that day, moved by the whole experience, I headed to the grocery store, and started piling healthy food and toothbrushes into two shopping carts. I’ll be honest, it may have looked a bit crazy. A guy walking down the aisles, hand outstretched, just piling food into the shopping cart till it overflowed. When it was too full, I went and got another cart. And when that cart got too full, I went and got another cart. Three full shopping carts later, I headed to the checkout line. Odd looks greeted me, but I was in a whole other place. The faces of the children pulled me to back, and I was not at all present in the moment. A manager of the grocery store approached me and asked for which event I was shopping. My South African family had to get my attention because I wasn’t even listening; I was lost in the zone. After exchanges between the manager and my family, the manager was so grateful for how much we had bought, that they gave us a complimentary bottle of wine for shopping with them.
Later that day, three full shopping carts worth of food and toothbrushes were dropped off with the Kindergarten, enough to feed the children for at least 2 months. Two months of food to feed a kindergarten! The total cost? Less than what I spend going out on a Friday night in Denver. Seriously, it cost less than a meal of sushi, drinks, and dancing. I don’t understand that. I don’t think I want to understand that.
The world needs to change. No doubt about it. But the changes I want to see in the world always seem dependent on me first changing the way I approach the world. I’ve developed a habit of being blind to my body’s needs as well as to the needs of others. This habit is so strong, and has been going on for so long, that I don’t even recognize it as a habit anymore—it’s just what I like to call, “my life”. If I can be honest, I’ve lost my appetite for my life. I don’t want to take another bite of life, unless innocent people around the world get to have their share too. So, on this day of rice and beans where I lost my appetite, I commit myself to be the change of a world revolution.