Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, November 22, 2003
by Susan Ives

In New England they place five kernels of dried corn atop a crisp scarlet maple leaf by every heaping thanksgiving plate. This reminds those partaking of the feast of the hunger leading up to the first Thanksgiving.

In mid-July of 1623, six weeks of drought shriveled Plymouth’s corn and bean crops. Each adult was allotted a daily ration of five grains of corn – hard, dry feed corn.

Colonist Edward Winslow wrote that the threat of famine moved them “to humble ourselves together before the Lord by fasting and prayer.” The next morning, Winslow related, “distilled such soft, sweet, and moderate showers of rain, continuing some fourteen days, and mixed with such seasonable weather, as it was hard to say whether our withered corn or drooping affections were most quickened or revived.”

Their prayers answered, Winslow concluded “it would be great ingratitude, if secretly we should smother up the same, or content ourselves with private thanksgiving for that, which by private prayer could not be obtained. And therefore another solemn day was set apart and appointed for that end.”

Winslow’s words are instructive. The colonists faced their crisis together, as a community. When there was threat of starvation, they resolved to starve together. When there was a promise of abundance, they shared the feast.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture just released their annual study of food security. Texas, once again, fared poorly. Only Utah reported more hungry people.

Those of us who are food secure have access, at all times, to enough food for an active, healthy life. Those who are food insecure do not. Food insecurity affected 11.1 percent of all U.S. households last year, 12.1 million families, 35 million Americans. In Texas, the percentage was 14.8 percent.

The survey paints a grim picture. The food we bought didn’t last and we didn’t have money to buy more. Adults skipped meals, or couldn’t afford to eat for a whole day. We relied on a few kinds of low cost meals to feed the children. The children skipped meals. The children didn’t eat for a whole day. The children were hungry.

Many of the food insecure get help through the federal the school lunch, WIC and food stamps programs. Others get emergency supplies from food pantries or soup kitchens.

Yet there is still food insecurity, still hunger. Last year, 4.1 percent of Texans experienced actual hunger -almost a million people. We are the richest nation on earth and the only industrialized nation where people routinely go hungry.

A person working full-time at minimum wage earns only $10,700 per year, $4,560 below the poverty level for a family of three.

In San Antonio a single parent with two or three children who visits a food pantry has an average income of $1,600 a month. Housing averages $771 a month, health care $272. Transportation costs $170 and childcare $795. After the family spends $323 on other necessities – clothing, personal care, school supplies, telephone – there is a shortfall of $791 a month. There’s more month than money, nothing left over for food.

San Antonio has one of the nation’s lowest participation rates in the federal food stamp program. According to the Center for Public Policy Priorities, only about 44 percent of the 274,864 people eligible in Bexar County have applied for the benefit.

We also have one of the lowest participation rates in the children’s summer food program. Only seven percent of eligible children are enrolled.

The USDA estimates that a family can provide nutritious meals for a 10-year-old for as little as $3.78 a day, about the cost of a grande latte. There’s a line at Starbucks and a kid on the East Side has a handful of Cheerios for dinner.

Like the Pilgrims, we must face this crisis as a community. It is not enough that we gather our family around the table on Thursday and gives thanks for our own great blessings. While there are hungry among us we must also, as Winslow suggested, humble ourselves.

Some day we will be able to give thanks that no one in this bountiful land is hungry, that the five kernels of corn are symbolic of a distant time, a crisis overcome. But not this year.

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