At the heart of what is usually termed the “American Dream” lies the idea of mobility. The potential in people, it is thought, can be realized through hard work in the right kind of conditions. Hardships can be overcome. Opportunities can be seized. Differences can be reconciled and boundaries melted down until we have reached the kind of life we truly desire with the people we desire to live it with. The American Dream is not about a specific house or a particular job position; it is about possibilities and getting the chance to make the most of them.
Perhaps no better example of the American Dream exists on this campus than on the east flank of Francis Quadrangle. Living here in the stately Chancellor’s Residence for the past nine years, Chancellor Brady Deaton and his wife, Anne Deaton, have embodied success and achievement in education. You wouldn’t guess that they have personally dealt with poverty or hunger. But, as Anne Deaton reflected last week at the first-anniversary celebration of Tiger Pantry, the couple faced food insecurity as graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Had there been a food pantry, I would've been at its door,” she said.
There exists a certain stigma about food banks and pantries, and the people who use them. Even those who don’t buy the thoroughly false concept of the “welfare queen” might view food-bank patrons as desperate, homeless vagrants, who are unable to support themselves. Popular opinion seems to imply that there should be some level of shame in using a food bank, that it constitutes “rock bottom.” But Anne Deaton’s testimony, and the success of Tiger Pantry in helping more than 2,000 ordinary members of the MU community, reminds us that food banks and assistance programs don’t just provide proper nutrition and sustenance, they can help enable the potential that lies in each of us.
Hunger is not limited to the homeless. It’s rarely obvious. It might be your neighbor, the student next to you in class or even you yourself who lacks food security. And it has a high cost. As MU’s Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security reports, food insecurity contributes to lower educational achievement, impaired performance at work and school, increased health issues and health-care expenses, psychological problems — on and on.
Sixteen percent of Missouri households experienced food insecurity in 2010, according to the center. One-in-five children in central and northeast Missouri is food-insecure. Our state is in something of a hunger crisis: The center’s Hunger Atlas 2013 reported Missouri has had the largest increase in its food-insecure population (a 7.4 percent rise) in the U.S. between 2000 and 2010 and now sits in the top 10 states for food insecurity (and is the most food-insecure state in the Midwest). Slightly less than a million Missourians participated in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or “food stamps”) in 2012.
This lamentable trend in Missouri coincides with a political movement coming to power in our state (along with many others) that views government programs such as SNAP as detestable “handouts” enabling participants to laze around on the taxpayer’s dime. This movement has had disastrous impacts in Missouri and across the nation due to this distorted, paranoid view of government. In fact, our federal government is shutdown due to a group of these congressmen and lobbyists who find the Affordable Care Act an unbearable breach of liberty. (Hint: It’s not.) An abject fear of illusory ideas of “socialism” is crippling our society. This summer, millions of dollars in cuts to SNAP were proposed by both chambers of Congress in order to appease this fear (the Farm Bill, which includes SNAP funding, was ultimately kept at 2008 levels due to gridlock).
Americans — more of us than we’d like to think — are hungry and lack food security. These programs are essential to helping feed our neighbors, our friends and possibly even ourselves. Welfare is not a dirty word; it’s part of the preamble to our nation’s Constitution — “to … promote the general welfare,” and we stand in resolute opposition to those who wish to stigmatize and bastardize Americans who need temporary assistance to reach their full potential.
A government without any social-welfare element isn’t a government. It’s a standing army. Pooling some of the collective resources of the people in order to protect and sustain its most vulnerable and disadvantaged is necessary to have a society worth any sort of pride. Congressional majorities come and go; political winds shift directions, but people will always need to be fed. We urge Missouri lawmakers to consider the full impact of their political grandstanding on their constituents who are hungry and unsure where their next meal will come from.
Helping reduce hunger and food insecurity in America isn’t limited to lawmakers, either — it’s possible here at MU, too. Tiger Pantry has several donation bins across campus and regularly hosts donation drives. Thanks to the selfless efforts of the MU community and pantry volunteers, the pantry was able to give more than 22,000 pounds of food to more than 2,000 people in its first year of operation.
Let’s all resolve to help make the pantry’s second year even stronger and have a greater impact in eradicating food insecurity on our campus. By donating and by reducing the stigma of receiving food assistance as lazy or “rock bottom,” we can have a tangible, powerful effect. As the story of Brady and Anne Deaton shows us, food insecurity doesn’t have to cast a permanent shadow on life. With help from neighbors and friends, it can be overcome — the first step toward achieving that glorious American Dream.
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