Most people have not experienced genuine hunger

Caitlin O'Malley

Do you know what it’s like to be hungry?

No, I’m not talking about the kind of hunger you get when you accidentally sleep in, skip breakfast and then sit in class, hoping no one can hear your stomach rumbling over that annoying kid’s presentation.

I’m talking about the type of hunger that keeps you up at night and wakes you up in the morning. The hunger that comes from skipping breakfast because there isn’t any food, avoiding lunch in order to save up for dinner and still wondering from where that dinner will come.

I have never been that kind of hungry. But the United States Department of Agriculture estimates that 12.6 million U.S. households have experienced this kind of hunger — known as food insecurity.

In quiet, hidden ways, many people in America are hungry. A few years ago, I worked with a happy-go-lucky, 23-year-old waitress. She worked two jobs and went to beauty school — all quite energetically. Her family was supportive and close. She looked clean, dressed decently and had an average build. Nothing would indicate that she was poor or hungry — until I found her crouched down behind the dish-washing station secretly picking through food scraps from customer’s plates and shoveling them into her mouth instead of throwing them in the garbage.

In the extra pocket of her apron, she shoved a heaping handful of half-eaten wings and french fries that were already drenched in ketchup.

There’s so much you can’t know about a person, even after years of working with them, living next to them or sitting beside them in class.

That’s part of the reason I became a journalist. I’d like to know what it’s like to live their lives — the private moments, the small details, the struggles, their secrets, their emotions and their thoughts.

So I enlisted the help of some experts at the State College Area Food Bank.

“I do know what it’s like to be hungry. If you could imagine when you get slightly hungry, magnify that a thousandfold. Unless you have actually ever been there, you can’t really understand. It feels like the world is coming to an end,” said Linda Tataliba, the food bank’s executive director.

In the 1960s, Tataliba experienced hunger for the first time when her father lost his job one winter. Tataliba and her siblings packed two empty slices of bread as their school lunches and pretended they were eating regular sandwiches.

“The other kids knew,” she said. “They made fun.”

She also recalled her youngest brother sitting at the kitchen table and crying for food in pain. She and her older sisters visited food banks for the family because their parents were too proud.

So, how much money do I spend on food per week if I want to experience “being hungry” for myself?

“Pay your other bills first and then act like you have nothing left,” Tataliba said. “Most of the people who come into our food bank have no money left for food.”

Obviously, I couldn’t go to a food bank and take away from the needy to write a column, so I needed a spending limit.

The food shelter can feed one person for a week for about $12.50, so this is the upper limit of my spending range. I’m aiming for $7 to $10.

More advice: No bottled water. No alcohol. No treats. You eat pasta plain if you run out of sauce. No exercise other than walking, no tanning, no going out. This is what you do if it is a matter of survival. No buying personal items. Everything you take for granted is gone.

Next Thursday in my column, I will reveal, as best as I can, my experience of being hungry — if only for a week.

The above column, by Caitlin O’Malley, appeared in the Daily Collegian (Penn State) yesterday.