“Ugh! I am so full,” groaned a friend, hands on her stomach, lamenting that she had eaten too much. We were cleaning up from a fundraising dinner, having just served a hundred people who had worked up an appetite on a long bike ride.
We still had a few servings of dinner after all our guests had their fill. There was an Alcoholics Anonymous group about to meet in the basement of the church building we were using, so someone went to ask if they would like our leftover food.
One of the group members came up to the kitchen to claim what was available. I did not know him, but from a quick glance, it was obvious he had seen some rough years.
While he was waiting for us to transfer the food into a pan he could take with him, that man overheard my friend’s comment and responded brightly, “Yeah, that is such a good feeling, eh!” The two looked at each other with awkward curiosity as they realized how differently they felt about feeling full.
If we consistently have access to enough nourishing food, we recognize when we have eaten enough, and then we stop eating for a few hours (or at least we should). If your body is about the same size as it was a year ago, you have learned this intuitively. We all eat too much occasionally, but our bodies are incredibly adaptive, and will adjust what we eat over the next day or so, and our clothes continue to fit us comfortably (or at least we should).
But for those who have lived through periods when they could not access enough food, hunger is more than a passing discomfort. Chronic hunger changes one physically and psychologically. Even common spiritual metaphors would sound different to someone who is significantly malnourished.
When someone has experienced a season of significant hunger, which is often accompanied by other stresses – erratic sleep, lack of safety, withdrawal, grief and loss – and then they get to a place where food is abundant, such as a shelter or a recovery program, the natural response is to overeat as the body (and heart) try to catch up on nourishment. Experiences like this would give a different perspective to a biblical proverb like, “When you’ve stuffed yourself, you refuse dessert; when you’re starved, you could eat a horse1.”
When one has access to a reliable food source, it takes an average of two months for people who have been chronically hungry to learn to consume the amount of food they need in one sitting, and for some, much longer. Overeating, especially with ultra-processed foods and excess caffeine, leads to feeling sluggish, jittery and experiencing digestive distress (which we can all empathize with, I imagine).
Sacred texts about hunger may be referring specifically to physical hunger, particularly in passages like, “God won’t starve an honest soul.2” We can also read these as an invitation to live a moral life that ensures abundance for all. Our earth can produce enough food, and God intends for us to ensure our resources are shared equitably enough so no one experiences hunger. If written today, that proverb might read, “Creator will not let anyone be food insecure.”
We understand food security to be the right to and the measure of the access to food which is nutritious, affordable, culturally appropriate, meets dietary needs and preferences, is obtained with dignity and is sustainably grown. Food banks, food lines – and giving vulnerable people food that would otherwise go to waste – rarely meets all of these criteria.
To really be food secure, people need a home. In Metro Vancouver, there are many good organizations, government teams and businesses working to ensure that is the case, but still far too many people will not have a safe, warm place to sleep tonight.
Once people have a home, they also need to know how to shop and cook, but food literacy is not usually the problem. All households should have the resources necessary to meet basic needs, including access to foods that support physical, mental, social and spiritual well-being.
We need to care about living wages, adequate disability supports and basic income. And then, when we get to a time when no one experiences chronic malnourishment, we will all hear Jesus’ words, “You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat,3” not as a discouraging impossibility, but an inspiring call towards generosity and just living.
Karen Giesbrecht is the Dietitian and Food Security Coordinator with Union Gospel Mission.