Hungry, for most of us, means not having had time to eat. When our children holler that there's no food in the house, what they're saying is the junk food's run out. Most of us don't know what hunger means, how it happens, and what it does to people. Letta Casey is an expert on the subject.
She was born 38 years ago in the Appalachian Mountains and lives there now with three children in a small house on an acre of ground, most of it on a Tennessee mountainside. She has no running water or electricity -- to her, a blessing. "These are bills I don't have to worry about," she told a recent hearing of the House Select Committee on Hunger. She has another blessing: a garden that supplies about 75 percent of the family's food. And she receives food stamps: this past August and September, she said, all the income she had was $153 in food stamps each month. "If we hadn't had our garden, we would have really gone hungry."
The land she cultivates belongs to the local Community Land Trust, a nonprofit organization that also helped supply her with seeds, plants, fertilizer and equipment. With fresh vegetables from the garden, she was able to use her food stamp money for milk, meat and other food in the summertime. "But in the winter," she said, "when the canned goods run low and when potatoes, or whatever you've raised, run low, then with food stamps you learn that flour and shortening and beans or potatoes are the sorts of things you have to buy the most of in order to make it from one month to another."
She lost her teeth by the time her third child was born. She had never had enough food, she said, for a nutritious diet.
She said that the small groceries in the mountain communities have to charge much more than supermarkets but rural people often don't have transportation or gasoline to get to supermarkets. Thus, food stamps often don't last the month.
She said rents have increased and "water and electric bills are outrageous . . . . I consider us lucky because the ones without land who survive solely on food stamps are really the people to be pitied." School, she says, is another blessing. Her children leave at 6:30 a.m. and don't get home until 4:30 p.m. but they get two balanced meals a day there.
Her story was by no means unique. Richard A. Couto, an assistant professor of Human Resources at Vanderbilt University, told the committee about a household survey taken in four Central Appalachian coal-mining communities during the summer of 1983. The survey was conducted to help improve maternal and infant health and 60 women who were pregnant or who had children under the age of 2 were interviewed in each of the communities. He said the women and children were representative of those who were at greatest risk from malnutrition.
He said all four communities had suffered severe depression when mines had shut down. In one, McDowell County, W.Va., unemployment was about 95 percent that summer.
Couto said that 44 percent of the women said they didn't have enough food for their families sometimes, or often. More than a third reported having household incomes of $250 a month or less. Of these, he said, 63 percent reported being without food sometimes or often. He said nearly 70 percent of the women who said they didn't have enough food sometimes or often also said they didn't have money to pay their bills regularly and 57 percent said they had no regular transportation.
He said that households headed by women had lower incomes than those in which both mother and father were present, but two-parent families, hard-hit by unemployment, had similar rates of hunger, yet were eligible for fewer programs.
He made a number of recommendations to the committee, including targeting the families that are at high risk and giving them more resources for food and prenatal care. He also suggested developing a new program that would train and use local women as paraprofessionals to help other women to get whatever services might be available to them.
"Whatever it is," he said, "we need to do something . . . . To ignore the hunger of some of our citizens because the many are satisfied is to starve the sensitivity that distinguishes us as humans and the concern that distinguishes us as Americans."
The problems of Central Appalachia may seem intractable, but if attention isn't paid, and the hungry not helped, people like Letta Casey and her kids are not the only ones who lose. How those women and their children survive is a wonder. How we, the most affluent and resourceful nation that's ever been, allow this to happen is a wonder, too.