In our house, Sunday mornings are for pancakes and extra blanket time. If I’m lucky, I wake up to the smells wafting off the griddle and lay on the couch until I fill my belly with delicious, sugary carbs. Dave makes them from the whole wheat flour and pure maple syrup that are always in our cabinets. Sometimes I toss a bit of fruit on my plate to pretend like I’m being healthy. After all, I have a basket full of bananas on my counter and a freezer stuffed with frozen berries. Dave usually adds chocolate chips to his, because he likes to live a life of luxury. If I’m feeling extra motivated, I’ll mash up a tofu scramble and add the spinach, peppers, and onions that always seem to find their way into our kitchen.
When I eat our lazy Sunday breakfast, I’m always appreciative of the moment together, Dave’s excellent pancake making skills, and the time I have to relax. Sometimes—though not often enough—I remember to appreciate the ease with which we fill our cupboards and fridge, the privilege of having enough for this feast every week.
That’s not the case for everyone. During the 2014-2015 school year, 21.5 million kids qualified for free or reduced school lunches. Around one in every five children and one in every ten senior citizens lived in food-insecure homes in 2015. Nearly half of SNAP (the federal food benefit program) recipients are children. For people who struggle to fill their family’s freezers and their children’s bellies, every meal is a concern. The worry never disappears. One day you could have just enough and the next you could be going to sleep hungry. Think about how hard it is to make it through your work day without a 3pm snack. Imagine that feeling for three months. For three years. Weeks and weeks of fluctuating between just barely filling your plate and opening an empty fridge in the morning. Imagine relying on a federal program to help you feed your children and then having it taken away when your government starts to cut the budget.
One of America’s most beautiful qualities—the pride we take in our ability to work hard and carve out a bit of the world for ourselves—backfires when we’re tasked with taking care of one another. We live in a system of praise and punishment, so that’s what we dole out. We forget that not everyone starts in the same place. We forget that our brains don’t all work the same way. We forget that this isn’t an all-or-nothing game. And our politicians know we forget those things. They forget too. So they pass bills that make the numbers look better and we let them because social needs are complicated and never-ending.
Each time an election comes around, though, its a chance to place people who remember in positions of power. It’s a chance to tell our government that we can both work hard to succeed and be understanding of people who need a bit more than we do. We can have something to which we all aspire—this grand ideal of ultimate success—while also firmly establishing a ground floor beneath which none of us should fall. At the very least, we can make sure we’re all fed, warm, and healthy.
I can’t buy a sandwich for every hungry kid or send a care package to every hungry family, but I can vote for politicians who support programs that align with my values. I can vote for representatives who maintain strong SNAP and WIC funding, who work to grow healthy food programs in low-income neighborhoods, and who prioritize school breakfast and lunch programs. Our presidential candidates haven’t been talking much about this issue—children with growling stomachs don’t vote very often—but state and local governments play a big role in keeping communities fed and healthy, and we can shape those roles just as we shape the presidency—if we cast our ballots.