The floor creaked at the top of the stairs, and I glanced up from my laptop to see my 8-year-old son standing there; one hand on the railing, the other on his tummy. “I can’t sleep”, he said, “I’m hungry”.
Just 30 minutes before, he crunched through a bedtime snack of apple slices. Two hours earlier he wolfed down his supper of spaghetti and meatballs, green salad and a glass of milk. Not to mention he’d also eaten breakfast, lunch and a snack or two during the day. Yet his growling tummy urged him out of bed.
He snapped a banana from the bunch in our fruit bowl, and perched on the edge of his chair at the kitchen table to peel it.
Watching him eat, I wondered what it would be like to feel truly hungry. And yet I was thankful that neither I – nor my son – would likely have to experience true hunger in our lifetime, unless by choice.
Recently I watched the 2013 film Living on One Dollar (available on Netflix), where four American friends made that choice. Embarking on a two-month journey to rural Guatemala, they chose to live in extreme poverty on a dollar each a day, like many of the 300 community members of Peña Blanca where they settled. For us, bananas are a staple eaten every day – a convenient snack between meals. For the four friends, bananas became a luxury they could indulge in, if and when their budget allowed.
With hunger as a constant companion, eating a banana became an experience – if not an obsession – that engaged all the senses. “Everything about a banana just brings me joy here,” one of the friends remarked as he paused to give his banana a once over before peeling it, “I just take a bite and savour it each time like it’s the best bite of banana I will ever taste.” Then, taking a nibble from the end, he shared his strategy to make sure the top of the banana is even after every bite, which “slows down your eating too.”
I watched my son as he munched on his banana, his mind less on appreciating the taste and texture of the fruit than on other distractions. In terms of his build, one might say he’s a stick; “slim” I tell him, and wonderful the way God made him. Wearing his swim trunks he’s a geometry lesson in boney angles – knees, elbows, shoulder blades – and you can see each protruding rib.
But while he looks thin, he gets three healthy meals and several snacks, each day. And he’s tall. In contrast, undernourished children are often short (See 5 Things I Didn’t Know About Malnutrition). Stunting – slowed growth and development – is the primary indicator of long-term undernourishment. My son would tower over his Guatemalan peers; in fact my 5-year old daughter would rival most hungry children twice her age for height.
It’s not surprising, given what the children of Peña Blanca have to eat. As little girls swipe their fingers around the inside of their dinner bowls and lick them to capture every last morsel, their father explains, “When there’s no food, the kids don’t grow. They don’t even have the energy to play. They’re just laying there because they only eat salt and tortillas. There is no nutrition.”
Even at 8 days on a diet of about 500 calories each – still more than some of the members of the community – the American friends were lethargic, head rushes were increasingly common, and one experienced a full on fall.
And so it seems the Snickers candy bar slogan rings true, “You’re not you when you’re hungry”. But if hunger from eating late or skipping a meal is enough to turn mild-mannered Marcia Brady into an axe-wielding Danny Trejo as in the 2015 Super Bowl Snickers commercial – and 8 days on a restricted diet is enough to cause fainting spells – just imagine the effects of chronic hunger.
In her book, Hunger: An Unnatural History (2005), Sharman Apt Russell describes how stunting has long term effects on a child’s organ and brain development, hormonal function and immune system. It also affects how a child interacts with the world and the people around them, and ultimately, who they become in the world.
As Russell describes it,
When children who must conserve energy withdraw from the world, the world withdraws from them. Mothers become less responsive to their less responsive infants. Bonding and emotional attachment may be affected. The malnourished child sits later, crawls, later and walks later. He is less interested in exploring his environment. He doesn’t play as much. He is smaller and seen by adults as younger than he is. They expect less of him. They talk to him less. In school, he is less social and active. He is less motivated. His teachers are less interested in him.
She goes on explain the tragedy of child hunger. “When an adult is hungry, it happens in the present tense,” Russell says, “When a child starves, there is another dimension. It also happens in the future. For a child is potential, in the act of becoming.”
In Snickers-speak, for kids wrestling with hunger, it’s not just that “you’re not you when you’re hungry”, it’s “you won’t become the person you’re meant to be when you’re hungry”. In some cases the effects can be reversed if children receive the right kind of food before puberty, but – as Russell notes – for most malnourished children this will never happen.
My son puts the banana peel in the compost. “That feels better,” he says, and I remind him to brush his teeth again before going back to bed.
When he awakens in 10 hours, he’ll be “starving” – or so he’ll say. But he’ll have the luxury of choosing from fortified cereal and milk; yogurt and fruit; or his latest hankering – a sunny side up egg with whole grain toast – that will give him the energy and nutrition he needs to grow, learn, play and just be a kid.
For the children of Peña Blanca – and almost half the children in Guatemala under age 5 who are malnourished – this won’t be the scenario. For them, hunger won’t just greet them in the morning; it will remain with them all day, each and every day. But with your help, it doesn’t have to…
You can turn the tables on hunger and open the door to a better present and future for children. For $25 – about 14 cents per school day – you can invest in the Breakfast Club to provide two children nutritious breakfasts throughout the school year, and help kids be themselves now so they can reach the full potential of who they’ll become in the future.
Wendy Ripmeester is a freelance copywriter in sustainable forestry with almost 20 years’ experience in the natural resources sectors. She has a passion for responsible travel and tourism; one of her favourite destinations is Latin America.