By Jesse McClain

Have you ever thought about the limitations and struggles of depending on government assistance programs? A new report from the Associated Press concluded that four out of five adults in the United States will struggle with unemployment, near poverty, and reliance on welfare programs at some point in their lives. This means that roughly 80% of neighbors, coworkers, family members and friends will have a story of living in poverty, a story of pain, and a story they don’t know how to start telling.

One of my main tasks this summer as an ELCA World Hunger Intern was to assist our team in the logistic planning of the ELCA World Hunger Leadership Gathering (ELCA WHLG). On the opening night of the ELCA WHLG our group gathered to watch the documentary A Place at the Table. If you haven’t had a chance to watch the movie– do it! I think the film allows for some great discussion about hunger and poverty in America. (You can buy the movie for $15 on Amazon as well a ton a free resources on the movies website if you want to show the movie at a church event.)

Barbie Izquierdo was one of the people whose story featured in the documentary. She is a single mother trying to make her way and feed her kids. Barbie joined us at the ELCA WHLG and represents the story of so many people in the U.S. who struggle to eat within the limited confines of little to no income and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan (SNAP). The average SNAP allocation is just around $4.50 per day on food, which is not enough for most people to get everything their body needs to be healthy.

The movie and Barbie’s presentation at WHLG hit very close to home. I grew up in a very poor home with a single parent who couldn’t make ends meet on her own. We often relied on the immediate relief programs available in my community for food, rent, and other utilities. My mom worked full time at Big Lots and made a little too much to receive SNAP, but barely made enough to survive. During the school year my younger brother and I would eat two free meals at school and eat dinner at home, so we were able to just scrape by. We struggled the most in the summers because my mom was suddenly responsible for three meals a day for two growing boys. Most summers we would only have a package of corn tortillas, lettuce, and ranch dressing in our fridge. We would heat up a tortilla, stuff it with lettuce and some ranch and called it summer tacos. That is all we would eat most days. To me that was normal. My family never had money to worry about eating healthy; we ate what we could afford.

At the end of the film Barbie gives a speech where she says, “You are where you come from.” My mom grew up in a similar situation as my brother and I did. She never graduated high school and had to work from a very early age to survive. Statistically, I should be heading down the same path. It was the love and work of the church that sent me down a different path that would break the chain. It was the after school programs in my home congregation that took me to visit colleges and pushed me to do well in school. It was the assistance given to my family in our worst times to get back on our feet. It was the constant love and support given to us by our congregation. I now sit here as a college graduate with so many amazing opportunities in front of me. The chain has been broken.

There are ways to end hunger and poverty. There is a feasible end goal. We as a church have the opportunity to fight hunger and be part of breaking the chain with and for so many in our nation and abroad.

Want to learn more about what the experience of the SNAP program would be like? ELCA World Hunger is currently producing “Food for a Week,” which is a hunger simulation that will give participants a better view into the SNAP application process and how much food can actually be purchased with SNAP benefits. This program will roll out on ELCA World Hunger website in the next couple months.

Jesse is an intern with ELCA World Hunger.