Hunger challenges cancer survivor, but 'with God's help, I can do it'
"Food insecurity" sounds like beef and veggies with an anxiety problem.
But hunger is hardly a joke for more than 50 million Americans—including 16.7 million children under 18—who were considered food insecure in 2011. According to the USDA, they were unable to acquire enough food for their households in any given month due to lack of money and other resources.
Hunger persists in the United States, despite the nation's standing as the breadbasket for the world. For the 15 percent of American families living in poverty, getting adequate amounts of nutritious food can involve a multitude of challenges.
That's the case for Rita Lujan, a native of Guam who moved to the mainland United States in 1989. Her husband of 42 years died of a stroke in 2010. One daughter lives with cerebral palsy; another is on dialysis after her kidneys failed. Her son-in-law also faces serious health issues.
Rita underwent a double mastectomy after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Now she's battling bone cancer. Her black knit cap covers silver hair thinned as a result of chemotherapy.
Yet she remains strong, holding together a family that includes her 8-year-old grandson, Nicholas.
"I pray that the Lord is taking care of [everything]," says Rita, 66, who has lively dark eyes and a broad, if weary, smile. "The days seem so overwhelming. It’s really tough."
The family lives in a manufactured house in Tacoma, Washington, and gets by on a combination of disability, Social Security, and retirement payments. Rita juggles household bills—"robbing Peter to pay Paul" to keep the rent paid, lights on, and meals on the table.
The family's food budget is bolstered through food stamps, trips to the food bank, and cucumbers, tomatoes, and zucchini from their garden.
Letting others know her family's needs is not easy. "I'm not a person who says, 'I need help,'" says Rita, who worked for 20 years as a secretary in Guam's Department of Education.
Going to the food bank for the first time, "I was embarrassed," she admits. "But when cancer came, everything changed."
Nicholas qualifies for free lunch at his elementary school, one of 21.4 million children in the United States who received free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program in 2012—the highest number since the program started in 1969.
But only 2.3 million children of those eligible students eat in the Summer Food Service Program. That's partly because many schools, like Nicholas' school, don't participate in the summer program.
Research shows that children raised in poverty encounter a multitude of emotional, social, health, and other challenges that hinder academic success. Hungry children perform more poorly in school and have lower academic achievement because they cannot concentrate and are ill-prepared to learn.
When Rita's household runs low on food at times, the local director of a nurses' association serving Pacific Islanders brings her Family Food Kits from World Vision. Each kit provides enough ingredients for 15 meals, including such dishes as lentil soup—"a very good meal," Rita says—rice-and-bean casserole, and macaroni and cheese.
World Vision plans to distribute 60,000 Family Food Kits across the United States in 2013, twice the number of last year—enough to provide 900,000 meals.
Overall, World Vision served nearly 2.3 million children and adults in the United States last year through a variety of programs, one of which provides teachers and students in low-income neighborhoods with free school supplies. (Nicholas has received some at his school.)
Other domestic programs offer clothing, personal hygiene items, household cleaning products, and building materials to vulnerable families. World Vision also responds to U.S. disasters with relief and recovery efforts, and we train local organizations to tutor and empower young people.
The programs help address some of the daunting needs faced by families like Rita's.
On her right wrist, she wears a white rubber bracelet imprinted with words that match her spirit: "Keep calm and fight on!"
"People say, 'You’re still standing.' With God's help, I can do it," Rita says. "I try to be strong. Life's been hard, but God doesn't give you more than you can chew."