By Tom Dobbins, Jr.
November 21, 2011 — One of my favorite spots in the city is on the banks of the Hudson River — approximately 5 blocks west of where Wall Street has been being occupied. There, you’ll find New York City’s memorial to the Irish famine that lasted from 1845 to 1852 – a tragedy that began with a blighted potato crop and was exacerbated by political inaction.
One-third of the people living in Ireland at that time – one half million – died of starvation, and another third – of whom I am a living descendent – emigrated in a great diaspora to any ports that would welcome them all over the world. The memorial is beautiful: a rugged half-acre of cantilevered landscape thickly planted with native Irish flora and plants growing in fallow fields, along with the remains of an authentic, famine-era Irish cottage. Accounts of historical and contemporary sentiments about worldwide hunger are etched in the base of glass and broadcast from an audio installation. While raising awareness about an event that happened long ago, the space also encourages visitors to address the causes of hunger world-wide.
Hunger has been in my thoughts a lot lately, primarily because for the past week I have been participating in the “Food Stamp Challenge,” a campaign sponsored by “Fighting Poverty with Faith” – and of which Catholic Charities is a partnering organization. The goal for participants in the Challenge is to live for one week on the benefit given to those on Food Stamps – approximately $31.50 per week, or $4.50 a day. Here in New York City, that money doesn’t go very far.
My meals for the week consisted mostly of oatmeal, brown rice, frozen vegetables and on-sale chunk light tuna. Except for a Saturday night treat of a 10-piece McNugget, I pretty much stuck to the challenge, winding up with just under $5 left over week’s end.
The experience reminded me of when I visited Tanzania with Catholic Relief Services last September, and lived off a diet of white rice and sauerkraut. It would have been obscene to complain about the food I was given after witnessing the food assistance work done by Catholic Relief Services in the drought-ravaged Horn of Africa.
The Food Stamp Challenge comes at a time of great challenge to our nation and its moral commitment to feed the hungry. The Congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction is working on a plan to reduce the deficit by $1.5 trillion dollars; the day that this deficit reduction plan is due is – ironically – the day before Thanksgiving. Many are concerned that food stamp assistance might be a target for massive funding cuts.
The U.S. Bishops and Catholic Relief Services are both now advocating with Congress and the Administration to ensure that hunger-related assistance is not compromised in the deficit-reduction debate.
For Christians, feeding the hungry is not some peripheral “nice thing” that we should do if we’ve got the time – it’s literally part of our “final exam” that Jesus told us about on the Sermon on the Mount, along with clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger and caring for the ill. In fact, Pope
Benedict XVI went so far as to say: “liberation from the yoke of hunger is the first concrete manifestation of the right to life, which – despite its having been solemnly proclaimed – is often very far from being fulfilled effectively.”
It’s up to us to ensure that what has been solemnly proclaimed is effectively fulfilled. While the rest of the world’s attention is focused on the 99% fighting the alleged evils of the top 1%, with the 53% somewhere in the middle, let’s be sure that our attention is focused on the 15% of Americans who live below the poverty level (and the much larger percentage of our impoverished brothers and sisters in the rest of the world).