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This article originally appeared in the Bentley Magazine.
Jonathan White calls hunger in the United States an invisible epidemic. His research on the subject includes interviews with 54 Americans who battle under-nutrition as a result of poverty; a survey of over 200 college students to assess their awareness of the issue and their beliefs about those who are hungry; and an intensive literature review of national and regional data. White tackles the issue in his forthcoming book, Hungry to Be Heard: Voices From a Malnourished America.
What qualifies hunger as an “epidemic”?
It is widespread, it has increased greatly over the past 35 years, and it affects tens of millions of people. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported nearly 49 million Americans living in households struggling against hunger in 2012. Hunger is a social problem because it exists in the most food-secure, abundant nation in the history of the world, where policy and systems of inequality leave the poorest 15 percent of Americans without adequate means to feed themselves.
Tell us about the first-person accounts that are part of your research.
I conducted 54 intensive interviews with people across the demographics of age, race and sex. They live in urban, rural and suburban areas in 18 states across the country. I learned there’s no single way that people come to find themselves hungry. Some are born into it; most have an adult working, often full time but for low wages; many were middle class and had been downsized or lost their job. A great number of the elderly face hunger due to issues of poverty and access, and children are the single largest demographic group of hungry Americans.
My research did find one commonality. Each of the 54 people interviewed said the worst part about being hungry is feeling invisible — absent from discourse, from policies, and from our collective conscience. This really struck me.
My survey of more than 200 students in the Boston area shows that 75 percent are misinformed about the levels of hunger in the U.S. There is a major disconnect between what average Americans think they know about hunger and the empirical data. For instance, more than 85 percent of those surveyed either agree or strongly agree that there are less than 5 million hungry Americans, when the actual number is nearly 49 million. The vast majority of those surveyed indicate that children account for less than 5 percent of the total hungry population when, in fact, they make up about 22 percent.
I’m interested in knowing how such a wide knowledge gap developed and how this lack of understanding perpetuates the problems of poverty and hunger in our nation. In other words, if Americans knew more about hunger — who is hungry, how many people are hungry, the multifaceted and complex reasons for their hunger, and the deep connections to poverty and policy — would they demand action and an end to this social problem?
How will your book add to existing literature and bring us closer to solutions?
The book creates a three-way “conversation” among the data and facts about who is hungry, the interviews of people experiencing hunger, and the college students surveyed about their knowledge of the issue. It presents a platform to raise awareness, to challenge people to think differently about themselves in relation to those who are struggling, and to come together in addressing the issue.
Since hunger exists due to a variety of policy, wage, nutritional and social safety net factors, the solutions lie largely in these areas. In short, we need to create better situations for families: higher minimum wages, cheaper access to health care, lower tax rates for the poor and working class, and better funding of supplemental housing and food assistance programs. Implementing K-12 curriculum about the social outcomes of inequality is crucial for imparting knowledge and planting the seeds of change.
How does the scholarship fit into your personal and professional goals?
My research on baseline morality issues keeps me impassioned, particularly because of their urgency and the fact that we’re not stepping up as a nation. It informs my teaching and the work I do at the Service–Learning Center.
I made a decision early in my career to become an applied sociologist, to learn as much as I can about social issues and then bring them to as many people as I possibly can. Ultimately, we need a force of people to come together collectively to put their minds, energies and talents toward creating solutions. Millennials’ sense of where we are as a nation and where the world is heading makes me hopeful. This generation has the power and skills to correct many injustices, and I believe they will.
An associate professor of sociology at Bentley, Jonathan White teaches an Applied Sociology course and directs the Bentley Service–Learning Center. His scholarship centers on inequality, globalization, human rights and civic engagement. He has founded or helped develop organizations and campaigns such as Sports for Hunger, the Hunger Resource Center, We are Silent, and We Scare Hunger. He serves on the Board of Directors for Free the Children, Peace Through Youth, and the Graduation Pledge Alliance.
When Brenden Botelho ‘20 and Jonny Boains ‘18 took internships in the Mass. Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, what was the biggest community problem to tackle? Adapting to climate change.