Cover Image
close this bookExploding the Hunger Myths - High School Curriculum (FF, 1987, 173 p.)
close this folderLesson 2: Is scarcity the problem?
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentActivity 1: Diet diary
View the documentActivity 2: How much food is there?
View the documentActivity 3: Where does the food go?
View the documentActivity 4: Hunger in the midst of plenty

Activity 4: Hunger in the midst of plenty

Students will read three portraits of hunger in the United States and then develop a lesson, group discussion, or play about their reading. Realizing that hunger exists in one's own community makes activists out of many people who feel helpless to do anything about global problems.


· To see hungry people as real people, not just as statistics
· To analyze why hunger exists in the United States and discuss ways to help eliminate it
· To present ideas through a group discussion, a peer-teaching exercise, or a play


· Student Handouts:

Bread and Gravy for Supper Again
I Eat Mostly Soup
A Visit to the Delta


One hour of class time for preparation plus one hour for presentations. Allow an extra half hour if readings are done in class.


Three formats are suggested for the students' projects. Evaluation depends on the type of project but would mostly be based on participation. Study questions can be turned in.


scarcity, surplus food

Hunger in the midst of plenty


1. Ask students if they think there is a scarcity of food in the United States. Why or why not? You can use statistics from activity 2 to show the surplus of calories. Ask if there are hungry people in the United States. Who are they? Why are they hungry? Tell students that they will be reading the stories of hungry people who could be their neighbors.

2. Divide the class into three groups. Distribute student handouts to each group. Have each student read their group's story.

3. Ask each group to prepare a presentation about people described in their handout. Three possible formats for student presentations are given below. Each of the groups could split up and try more than one of the formats.

Group Discussion. Ask the students to make up questions about the handout they have been assigned. Each student can be asked to write three questions and share one with the class in a group discussion. The discussion, rather than being answer-centered, can focus on the process of searching for answers to questions from the reading. For example, a question based on the West Virginia article might be "What is surplus food?" or "Why is there so much unemployment?" These questions are not easy to answer and should not be treated as though they are. Group discussion can focus on the information students may have from their experiences and on ideas about where to find answers that seem elusive.

Co-teaching. Ask the students to teach the information in their handout to the other groups, explaining the content and message of the handout they read. Co-teaching can be very successful among high school students since it is very interactive. The method stresses cooperation within groups, decision-making skills, and reading comprehension.

Instruct students to use any method or teaching style they prefer to communicate what they feel is the major point of their reading and what they feel is a lesson contained in the reading. The group may wish to use a lecture format (delegating a single spokesperson to address the rest of the class), a panel presentation, a pretest, or a group discussion. Let them decide. Emphasize that they are not expected to have polished presentations or to explain everything. Suggest that they prepare their own handouts for the other students, and offer to help reproduce the handouts.

Role-playing. The handouts give stories and situations of people who are hungry in the midst of plenty. Ask the students to consider the situations in their handouts (or the additional role-playing suggestions in procedure step 4) and to think about how they would feel as one of the people in the situation, how other people might regard them, and what they might do about the situation. Then ask the students to develop an ad-lib play to act out some of their feelings. They can assign as many roles as they feel are necessary and formulate personalities and words for each character. If the group is less demonstrative, perhaps they can express their ideas through writing a skit or play. Remind students to develop a central idea they want their production to convey.

3. Allow time in class for group presentations.

4. You might want to add some additional role-playing presentations to the activity. Here are some suggestions.

a. It is the end of the month, and all one person can buy for a family of three is navy beans and bread, while the person ahead of him or her in the grocery line has an entire cart full of meat, fruit, and gourmet foods.

b. A family discovers that their elderly neighbor is severely undernourished because he is eating a meal only every two days.

c. A government official makes the announcement that there is no scientific evidence of hunger in the United States. This is watched on television by poor families eating at a soup kitchen nun by a local church.

5. After the student presentations, it is good to have a short wrap-up discussion. Several discussion questions are listed below. You can also ask the students to turn in the questions at the bottom of their handouts.

a. Is there a lack of food in the United States? How do you know?

b. Who is hungry in the United States? Is hunger more common among certain social, racial, age, or employment groups? (Ask students to refer to their readings or personal observations.)

c. What are some of the consequences or results of hunger for people in the articles? What does it feel like to be hungry?

d. Are there programs to end hunger in the United States? What are some examples? Are they long-term solutions? (Contact local social service agencies for information on the programs available to people in your area.)



· Community for Creative Nonviolence (organization)
· Everyone, Everywhere (film), Franciscan Communications
· Food Research and Action Center (organization)
· Poverty in the American Dream: Women and Children First (book), by Barbara Ehrenreich, et al.
· Starving in the Shadow of Plenty (book), by Loretta Schwartz-Nobel


Students can view a film, videotape, or slide show on hunger or homelessness and then arrange a showing for other students after school.


Students can volunteer at local soup kitchens, shelters for the homeless, senior citizens' centers, daycare centers, or food banks. They can raise funds to support these centers. Social service agencies, mental health agencies, and religious organizations provide the best leads for these volunteer opportunities.

Surplus government food is often distributed free of charge to needy people in many areas of the United States. Unfortunately, the locations for distribution are frequently not well publicized. Your students can investigate and then publicize food distribution locations. The information can be posted in the centers where students volunteer.

Bread and gravy for supper again

Branchland, West Virginia. Like thousands of other poor kids across the country, Jerry and Betty Elkins' three children know all too well what it's like to sit down to meager meals.

"We usually have bread and gravy the last few days of the month," twenty-seven-year-old Jerry Elkins says while waiting for a handout of federal surplus food at nearby Guyan Valley High School. "This cheese and butter will really come in handy at our house."

"I just can't find work anywhere, not even odd jobs," he says. "We're living on welfare, and just barely getting by. And things really get tough at the end of the month, when the food stamps are used up."

Bread and gravy for supper again

In August President Reagan said he was perplexed by reports of widespread hunger in America. Reagan, who announced he was appointing a task force to study the problem, said he couldn't understand how there could be so many hungry people in such an affluent nation.

Betty Elkins, a thin, dark-haired woman, hadn't heard of the president's task force but says she is well informed about its subject.

"I couldn't tell you how many times we've made a meal on bread and water gravy," she says. "The kids don't complain, though, and I tell them, at least we're not starving. Why I'd sell everything in the house before I'd let them starve."

The Elkins family lives in a rickety, rented frame house near this rural southern West Virginia community. The father says soup, beans, bread, and gravy have become an end-of-the-month staple since he lost his sawmill job thirty months ago.

"Sometimes, though, I can get a little advance on my bill at the store," he says. "Then we buy some eggs or something."

Nancy Amidei, director of the Food Research Action Center in Washington, D.C., has heard many such hard-luck tales. She says the country is teeming with hungry children.

"One quarter of all the kids in the country are members of poverty-level families," she says. "And while there's no nationwide, scientific survey, the poverty count, by definition, is a good indicator of the hunger count.

"The number of poor people in this country has been rising for the past three years and it's now at its highest rate since 1965," she says. "We're even beginning to get reports about urban, inner city children who are being hospitalized three and four months after their birth, weighing less than they did when they were loom."

In McDowell County, located in the southern West Virginia coal fields where more than 30 percent of the work force is unemployed, school officials say hunger is a way of life for many children.

"Very definitely, there are hungry children in this county," says Frances Whitten, who administers the county's school lunch and breakfast programs.

"I feel that for many of these children, the largest part of their diet is what they get to eat at school. I base this partly on my own observations and what I hear from the school cooks, who tell me how hungry the children are on Mondays."

Whitten says she did a survey several years ago and found that summer weight loss was not uncommon among the children who participate in the school feeding programs.

"We had one pupil who had lost twenty pounds over the summer," she says. "He attended a school that provided only free milk."

Ilene Welly heads the Mountaineer Food Bank, which stocks twenty-two emergency food pantries across West Virginia. She says Reagan administration cutbacks in the food stamp and school lunch programs have worsened the plight of the nation's hungry kids.

"I don't know who's kidding whom," she says. "Everybody keeps saying there's no hunger, but in West Virginia there's a staggering demand for food, especially in the southern coal field counties where so many people are out of work."

Amidei says 3 million fewer children are being fed in the school meal programs than in 1972. The Elkins' two school-age children do qualify, however, and their parents say this means they will be better fed this winter than they were during the summer.

- Adapted from Strat Douthat, "West Virginia Family Knows Hunger All Too Well,' AP Newsfeatures, November 13, 1983


food bank, staple, surplus food, task force


1. Why is the Elkins family hungry?
2. How can government officials not see that there is hunger in the United States?
3. Can you think of reasons why the number of poor people is increasing?
4. Why are food programs cut?
5. Why are many people unable to use the services of food banks, such as the one mentioned in the article?
6. What are your ideas for improving this situation?

I eat mostly soup

Theresa Skolnick is an elderly woman who lives in Philadelphia. The author of this account visited her at her home, not far from one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city.

I look around at the once beautiful sitting room with its two matching fireplaces and cut-glass chandelier made for five bulbs - only one bulb was being used. She read my thoughts. "I try to keep the cost of electricity down so that I can stay here and not lose my house. For thirty years, I've had this house. You can see that this was a beautiful house once, but now I can't afford to keep it up or to repair it or even light it.

"It's been getting worse and worse ever since my husband died. You know," she went on, being drawn back into the past, "I always wanted to die before he died. On the twenty-fifth of March, one day after my birthday, I had gone to the store and was waiting for the bus. All of a sudden, at Eighth and Market surrounded by people, I had an overwhelming feeling - that I was in the world all alone. I felt cold and I felt dark, I mean dark inside, and I stood there and I thought, my God, what's wrong with me? When I got home, the police were there waiting. They told me my husband had just died. We had been married for fifty years."

I eat mostly soup

These days, Theresa Skolnick worries about more inflation. She doesn't know how much longer she can make the money last. When she can, she buys a ton of coal for $80. Her Blue Shield and Blue Cross are $45 every other month. By the time she pays those bills and her electricity and telephone, there is almost nothing left for food.

"Meat is real high," she tells me. "When I can, I buy something that looks like veal but it's not. I really don't know what it is. I buy it in four slices and then I wrap each slice separately and freeze it and try to eat it slowly. I buy oxtail; you can cook oxtail with soup or stew. I used to love shrimp and codfish. I can't buy that. I eat mostly soup - but these days, you can't cook a decent soup. I used to get the shin meat; today I can't get that either. I tell you, you can't eat much now. I know it's not just me.

"Sometimes I watch when other elderly people come into the supermarket and I see they just stand there looking around like they are hungry and lost.

"One day about a year ago, I said, oh, the hell with it. The hell with everything. I went in to the butcher and I said, I'll take that large chicken. I didn't even ask how much it was. The chicken cost $4.98 and I bought it. It had been years since I had chicken like that."

"Do you remember the last time you had steak?" I asked.

She laughed and waved her hand. "Steak? You can't be very serious. I don't even look in that department. Once a month, I go to McDonald's for lunch. That ground meat is the closest I ever get to steak. Since you've asked me I'm going to tell you the truth. It's very, very tough."

Theresa Skolnick is one of millions of American widows who has worked all her life, receives Social Security, and still lives below the poverty line. A report issued by the Advisory Council on Social Security, submitted to the Congress for 1980, stated that about one out of every three aged widows was living in poverty even if they received Social Security. Benefits for elderly women who have never been married are even lower than the benefits for widows.

No one knows how many of these women are hungry or how many are dying alone after malnutrition has weakened their bodies, allowing the onset of other diseases.

But we do know that most of the women who worked long and hard for wages were usually locked into traditional "female" occupations. Their salaries were meager even then, and their Social Security benefits, which are based on their earning levels, are now very low. For many, survival without outside help is nearly impossible.

- Adapted from Loretta Schwartz-Nobel, Starving in the Shadow of Plenty (New York: The Putnam Publishing Group, 1981)


inflation, malnutrition


1. Why is Theresa Skolnick hungry?
2. How does she survive?
3. What kinds of help does she receive from the community?
4. What can we do about the situation of Theresa and the many others like her?
5. Why are aged women more likely to live below the poverty line than aged men?
6. Why are seniors more likely to go hungry than younger adults?

A visit to the delta

These are the impressions of several doctors who visited Mississippi to study hunger in that state.

Everything is so clear in the Mississippi Delta. One drives down the long roads of rich farmland stretching to the left and right, land that has supported productive soybean and cotton crops for two hundred years. Suddenly the panorama is broken by a stand of trees with a big house and several little houses trailing away from it, homes for the poor black tenants whose families have lived in the unheated shacks for decades.

A visit to the delta

Signs proudly proclaim the name of each plantation. No attempt is made to hide, excuse, or change the enormous gap between rich and poor, black and white in this region of the nation. So long have many of the residents lived in this environment that they defend it without shame. "There's no hunger here," one local doctor reported, generalizing from his wealthy white patients, no doubt, to the poor blacks he never treats. "Every specimen I see on the street is fat and shiny."

But there is substantial hunger in this rich agricultural region. It is simple to find and easy to see. But so are all the other problems that accompany hunger here. People don't just get to be hungry in the Delta without having other things that are not right in their lives: dilapidated housing, no jobs, lack of health care. We easily found many people crippled by the experience of poverty and racism, lives that cannot easily be repaired by a particular program. But the people are also hungry, and that is a problem quite easy to remedy.

In fact, hunger in this region was decreased by the federal nutrition programs during the last decade. Some of the physicians in our group had seen the progress firsthand, having lived in Mississippi all their lives. Others had actually traveled to the Delta with the U.S. senators in 1967, and had returned in 1977 to find that hunger and malnutrition had decreased. Many of the programs that helped fight hunger have now been canceled.

On this trip, in 1984, the four doctors were visibly shaken by what they saw. Inside the remnants of a house, alongside a dirt road in Greenwood, lived a family of thirteen people. Graciously welcomed by the mother and father, the doctors entered another world - a dwelling with no heat, no electricity, no windows - home for two parents, their children, and several nieces and nephews. Clothes were piled in the corner, the substitute location for closets, which were missing; the two beds in the three-room house had no sheets, the torn mattresses covered by the bodies of three children who lay side by side. In the kitchen a small gas stove was the only appliance.

No food was in the house. The babies had no milk; two were crying as several of the older children tried to console them. "These people are starving," the local guide told the doctors. Twice a week she collected food from churches to bring to the family. It had been this way for two months while the family waited for the local food stamp office to determine whether they were eligible for food stamps. Only the flies that crawled on the face of the smallest child seemed to be well-fed. The parents were not; they had not eaten for two days. The children had eaten some beans the previous evening.

A few houses away two other doctors spoke to a hungry, pregnant woman whose infant son recently died. She had been cut off welfare benefits after a dispute over whether she was qualified, leaving her $60 monthly food stamp allotment as the only income each month for herself, the unborn child, and her five-year-old son. Her refrigerator had three sticks of butter and some powdered milk.

One of the doctors quietly shook his head, "What you're looking at are the faces that become infant mortality statistics."

These families were not unusual. Nearly one quarter of Mississippi's population, over 580,000 people, live below the federal poverty level.

- Adapted from Physician Task Force on Hunger in America, Hunger in America: The Growing Epidemic (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1985)


dilapidated, federal nutrition programs, food stamps, infant mortality, plantation, poverty level, statistics, tenants, welfare


1. Why don't people on the Delta have decent homes, jobs, or health care?
2. How can hunger occur in such a rich agricultural area?
3. What is racism? How does it relate to hunger?
4. What can a hungry family in Mississippi do for help? Is it a lasting solution?
5. Can you think of lasting solutions to the problem of hunger in Mississippi?