A novel approach

Nov 24, 1999 at 12:00 am

"Children ... can recover physically from malnutrition, but not mentally. Early childhood brain development, if impeded by chronic malnutrition, is irreversible."

Novelist Mark Winegardner knew he had to do something when he heard Dr. Larry Brown, director of the Center on Hunger and Poverty at Tufts University, relay that message at a 1995 conference on hunger.

That something turned out to be We Are What We Ate, a collection of moving and sometimes funny essays by American writers who shared their thoughts on food.

The featured authors, including University of Michigan English professor Charles Baxter, agreed to donate all royalties from the sale of the book, published last year, to Share Our Strength. SOS is a national nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that helps fight hunger in the United States and around the world, involving groups from corporate executives to chefs to authors. For example, the group publishes fiction and nonfiction books and sponsors hundreds of poetry readings every year around the country. SOS has donated $50 million to food relief agencies since being founded in 1984.

It was an SOS conference that brought Winegardner in contact with the information that Brown feels is too often ignored during the current economic boom.

According to a 1998 U.S. Department. of Agriculture report, 34.6 million Americans suffered from "food insecurity" and 20 percent were children; food insecurity means not always having enough food to meet basic needs.

"That paradox is due to the fact that more and more are in the workforce, but are working for less money," Brown told the Metro Times, speaking from his office in Massachusetts. "So people are playing by the rules, but they can't both pay their rent and buy groceries."

Brown says that hunger was nearly nonexistent 30 years ago in the United States. But in 1981, President Ronald Reagan began slashing food programs and by 1985, 20 million Americans experienced hunger. Clinton exacerbated the problem in 1996, when he enacted welfare reform and cut food stamp programs by $24 million.

"We need to strengthen food and nutrition programs that keep people from going hungry," he says.

On the other hand, if these programs are not strengthened, Winegardner warns, hunger will continue to hamper child development, particularly development of the mind.

"If a writer wants to be read, if a writer wants a world in which ideas and art are respected and appreciated, he or she had better start out with a world in which kids get enough to eat."

For more information about SOS and its publications, visit its Web site.