No Place at the Table

Be careful when you opt to wander off the beaten path; what you come across might change your direction altogether. What award-winning journalist Loretta Schwartz-Nobel saw when she took a shortcut to work one day—three rail-thin children foraging through a city dumpster—compelled her to take a cross-country journey on another road less traveled, into the desperate lives of people who suffer from "America's silent and hidden disease": hunger. What she uncovers is an epidemic of unimaginable proportions within the world's most prosperous nation. The stories of the hungry children, women, and men Schwartz-Nobel encounters along the way form the basis of her new book, Growing Up Empty: The Hunger Epidemic in America.

A road map for those who are invisible, Growing Up Empty blends solid investigative journalism with sincere personal exposition and captures the helplessness and terror that torment people who don't have enough food to eat. Today, more than 36 million people in the United States live in food-insecure households, and at least 12 million of them are children under age 12. I use these well-documented numbers every day at the anti-hunger advocacy organization where I work, but I was not prepared to be so moved by the stories I read in Schwartz-Nobel's book.

An attractive woman in an upscale suburb, deserted by the husband she supported through medical school, steals scrip for groceries from her synagogue's fundraising project to buy food for her two sons. A third-year Marine, peeking suspiciously from behind the front door of a military house, surrenders his pride long enough to accept a bag of free food to feed his wife and infant daughter, who haven't eaten for three days. A mother of two young children, grateful for the three consecutive days her unemployed husband has found work (even though their food stamps are canceled), divides a single orange between her hungry, squabbling kids, wondering what her family will eat the rest of the week until payday comes.

FROM THE INNER city of Philadelphia—Schwartz-Nobel's own hometown—to the suburbs of Chicago, from the dusty roads of rural Mississippi to the glossy streets of southern California, folks struggle against the odds for the daily bread to simply survive, let alone for the nutritious food to fuel a child's growth at critical stages. The generosity and remarkable creativity of local emergency food providers make the difference between life and death for the hungry people Schwartz-Nobel's reporting renders afresh.

But "asking charity to do the impossible by picking up the shortfall caused by massive food stamp cuts" clearly is not the answer to ending hunger and poverty. A passionate and accessible introduction to the recent history of public policy as it relates to hunger, Growing Up Empty weaves the (d)evolution of welfare and food aid programs into the personal stories of families who fall between the cracks of a frighteningly inadequate federal "safety net."

The path of America's poor is not a new one for Schwartz-Nobel, whose first acclaimed book on hunger, Starving in the Shadow of Plenty, came out in 1981. More than 20 years later, "public denial and silence have returned," warranting the urgency of her message: Hunger in America is not a choice, it is a disease. "The reality is that half of America's poor children live with a parent who works."

Alarming as they may be, the facts about hunger in America don't speak for themselves. Their significance is rooted in the stories of the human lives they represent, people with dreams like you and me, people who can speak for themselves, but whose voices often go unheard. In a time when war cries drown the frantic pleas of people in need, Growing Up Empty is a powerful, provocative, and timely voice for millions of hidden, hungry people.

Shawnda Hines Eibl is religious media associate at Bread for the World in Washington, D.C.

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