On Saturday, I participated in an Oxfam America Hunger Banquet at a church in Wakefield, Massachusetts. It’s a town where the median price for a single family house is $379,000 and 89 percent of high school graduates go on to college. It’s a place of affluence and ambition. But it’s also a place where the local food pantry saw a 31 percent increase in visitation this past year—a sign of the hard times many families are now facing.
Sitting on the floor nibbling through a fistful of rice—a meal symbolic of the scant nutrition on which 50 percent of the world’s people survive —I thought about some of those Wakefield families turning to a food pantry for their own survival in a culture crazed with consumerism. What must it feel like to pull up for a handout in a shiny SUV that you can no longer afford?
No one asks questions, said the woman from the food pantry; it’s humbling enough for a mother or father to request a bag of free groceries.
Since the hunger banquet, I’ve been thinking a lot about the challenges families in Wakefield—and everywhere across the US—are now confronting as the economy nosedives. And I’ve been wondering when the weight of all that bad news would begin to sink my town.
It feels like it has started. A raft of house-for-sale signs has cropped up on the corner of my street. And nearby, a car dealership, once ablaze with lights, has suddenly emptied out—everyone laid off, every car from the packed lot gone. A sea of cracked asphalt is all that’s left. What are all those mechanics and salesmen, some of whom worked there for many years, going to do now? That question is lurking in the back of the minds of everyone who has managed to hold onto their jobs.
But unlike some of the countries I’ve traveled to for Oxfam, we’ve got some safety nets here: unemployment insurance, civic groups that are free to advocate loudly and strongly for the needs of people, and enough national wealth to approve a $700 billion bailout for Wall Street. In places like Ethiopia and Democratic Republic of Congo—where governments have few resources to invest —people are truly on their own.
What does that mean? In Ethiopia, gripped by drought and struggling with spiraling food costs, it means that many people are eating just one meal a day—and 13.5 million are in dire need of aid. In Congo, it means that a dearth of roads, functioning medical clinics, and water delivery systems—all neglected during years of conflict—has left people with few opportunities to climb out of the poverty that saddles them with sickness and hunger.
In the church last Saturday, as we ate our small portions of sticky rice and thought about the growing number of Wakefield families slipping quietly into the local food pantry, the world suddenly felt like a very small place.