By Ross Barkan

We are a hungry nation. We are hungry for success, for honor, for wealth, and for…food. Yes, the United States—still the wealthiest nation on planet Earth—is struggling to feed millions of its own citizens. Hunger is far from dead in this new century.

According to a report by the Department of Agriculture, the number of Americans in households that lack consistent access to adequate food skyrocketed in 2008 to 49 million. This is the highest number since the government began tracking “food insecurity” 14 years ago. About a third of this 49 million struggled with “very low food security,” meaning a lack of resources forced families to skip meals, eat smaller portions, and forgo future meals. The other two thirds had enough to eat but only by eating a cheap, unbalanced diet and relying on foods stamps and food pantries.

American Hunger

Even more upsetting is the 506,000 households containing children who face “very low food security.” The troubling figures are the result of rising food prices and a souring economy. No wealthy industrialized nation should have to struggle to feed its own citizens. In a time when science and technology can make almost anything seem possible, the dinner plate should not still be empty.

At the most basic level hunger, next to thirst, is what drives human beings. When we are fed, we are productive. When we are not fed, we are angry, depressed and weak. And then we die. Though people will try to rationalize what politicians, economic systems, and institutions they believe are just, all that truly matters is who or what is best at putting bread on the dinner table. Everything comes down to bread. We are nonequilibrium thermodynamic systems in need of energy. The average voter could care less about Republicans and Democrats as long as the money exists to buy food.

Hunger! Nothing is as physically and psychologically debilitating as hunger. If only every individual could experience at least one bout of horrific, howling hunger in their lives. If only they could know what people across the nation and earth endure every single day. In a world of hunger, there is no time for philosophical reflections, comedic musings, whimsical reveries, and essays such as the one I am writing. Hunger saps all strength. Hungry people cannot fight back, combat injustice, or even laugh at the world around them, perhaps the most important thing of all…

Let’s imagine hunger. Let’s imagine starvation. There are the obvious ills: weight loss, depletion of vital nutrients, and a fragile immune system. Prolonged starvation is detrimental to the mind. Months of semi-starvation results in depression, hysteria, and severe emotional distress. The mind and body are burning away.

“I clenched my fists madly, started crying from sheer helplessness, and gnawed like a man possessed. I cried so much that the bone became wet and messy with tears. I vomited, swore, and chewed again, cried as if my heart would break, and threw up again. Then I swore aloud and consigned all the powers of the universe to hell.” These are the words of the unnamed narrator in Nobel Prize-winning Knut Hamsun’s 1890 novel Hunger. Perhaps no writer ever captured the sickening sensation of hunger—that great death spiral—better than the Norwegian Hamsun. Once a poor writer, he understood the pain of living meal to meal. His narrator wanders the city of Oslo without money or comfort, moaning in the mire of dreadful, soul shattering poverty. His hair falls out, his body shrinks, and his world fills with blood, vomit, and nausea. Hunger destroys him. He can’t think. He can’t act.

While the trials of this narrator might be more drastic than the battle impoverished Americans wage against hunger, the point of the novel remains valid. We give too little attention to the problem of hunger and the effects it has on society. The sufferings of third world countries are acknowledged, though not alleviated. Living near starvation is thought to be impossible in the modern, industrialized state. Those who are well-fed struggle to understand the physical and psychological hell that hungry people combat daily. They struggle to even understand the possibility of such hunger.

In 1944, physiologist Ancel Keys led an experiment at the University of Minnesota to study the effects of starvation on the human body. Before then, little scientific research had been conducted about the penetrating torture that is starvation. The study aimed to discover the best ways to feed survivors of famine, especially those in Europe in the wake of World War II. Thirty-six men volunteered for Keys’ experiment.

As the participants found their rations drastically cut, they first lost their libidos. Extreme weight loss destroyed sexual desire. Strength dissipated. Mental concentration wavered. Bob Willoughby, one of the test subjects, described the genesis of a new outlook, “We were no longer concerned about the problems of the world. We weren’t as concerned about helping others. Our thoughts were dominated by food.” When coffee and tea were eventually the only luxuries they were allowed, some participants resorted to chewing gum madly. One consumed 18 packs in a single day.

Behavior grew increasingly irrational, especially when food was nearby. One participant shoplifted potatoes, carrots, and onions, the basis of the prescribed diet in the study. When the starvation stage finally ended, the rehabilitation stage began. For some of the men, it was the most psychologically trying time. One participant, Sam Legg, chopped off three of his fingers with an ax. He was never sure if it was accident or not. Many other participants were despondent about their ongoing hunger, even when salvation was so close. They could think of nothing but food.

The experiment led to a far greater understanding of human starvation on both a physical and psychological level. The two volume, 1,385 page report titled The Biology of Human Starvation opened the eyes of a nation to the visceral nature of starvation. Today, we should remember the experiment. The participants eventually recovered and lived healthy lives. They were lucky. Their hunger was only temporary. For the millions without access to consistent, nutritious meals in this harsh economic climate, hunger is perpetual. There is no reprieve.

Congress and President Obama should make alleviating hunger a top priority. Federal nutritional programs should be expanded. Stimulus money should ensure that virtually all citizens are able to earn a living wage. A living wage is not just enough to scrounge together a meager meal to feed a teeming household. A living wage is much more. No American should have to fret about where their next meal is coming from or when they will eat again.

Deliver every citizen from hunger, Mr. President, and you will actually be changing something.