Hunger can be described in many ways. On a physiological level, it is a sensation caused by the churning and contracting of the smooth muscles surrounding an empty stomach. On an emotional level, it can manifest as a gap in one’s life, a void needing to be filled with love, community, connection to other people, oneself, or one’s environment. On a spiritual level, hunger might manifest as an urgency to feel connected to one’s personal notions of God or a higher understanding of things. In basic terms, hunger signifies a lack of something necessary in one’s life, and the emptiness that results from that need not being met. Access to nutritious food is a basic human right that should be granted to every single person on this planet, but for many people, this access is not insured.

This is to be the first of a series of articles focusing on the many intricacies involved with the issue of hunger, both in the United States and around the world. I have decided to write the first of these pieces on hunger in Whatcom County, because before venturing into the expansive issues surrounding world hunger, it is important to remember that hunger is not something that just exists “out there,” but is, in fact, part of our immediate experience as Bellingham residents. Often, when we think of hunger, we place it far outside the realm of our own experience, in distant countries far away from our own home and soil. In doing this, it becomes possible to disassociate ourselves from the immediacy and relateability of the experience that we, as American citizens, have to this issue.

Hunger is a real, tangible experience felt by thousands of people who are living right here in Bellingham and Whatcom County, and thinking of hunger solely in terms of “out there” is unhelpful in creating a bridge connecting oneself to this vital issue of human survival and quality of life. The disconnect of one’s ability to relate to the issue of hunger ultimately creates an environment where hunger becomes abstracted, seeming so far removed from reality that it becomes crystallized in our minds like a marble statue in a museum— something we can examine and study, but never really know and feel. Abstracting the issue makes it easier to ignore. But our distance from hunger is an illusion, and needs to be shattered if we are to create the action necessary to make a change.

According to the 2000 US Census, close to 13,000 Bellingham residents, over 20 percent of Bellingham residents, are living below the poverty level; that figure has only increased. That is more people than compose the entire student body at Western— far too many people who are without adequate income for a country that prides itself on wealth, prosperity, and gross excess. How can we, as American citizens, justify the number of people living below the poverty line?

What, you may ask, does poverty have to do with hunger? In this country, in order to eat, one must have means to purchase food. If one lacks those means, one does not get fed. Poverty is at the very core of the issue.

Poverty requires people to make extremely difficult choices. Imagine being forced to decide between paying rent or having a full stomach. What if your child is sick— would you pay for their medical treatment or purchase something to eat? What would you choose if deciding between food and the many other support systems vital for human survival and sustenance? When under economic strain, one’s food budget is often the first thing to be tapped and drained, which leaves individuals and families living in poverty or low-income situations with a troubling lack of the very thing we all need to survive, food.

Mike Cohen, the director of the Bellingham Food Bank, said that 17 percent of Bellingham residents came to the food bank at least once last year. He noted that the Food Bank receives a minimum of 6,000 requests for assistance every month; clearly hunger in Whatcom County is no trivial matter. Cohen said that 50 percent of the people who use the Food Bank are below the age of 18 and seniors, two very vulnerable populations.

“This points to a huge health problem,” said Cohen, “as proper nutrition affects school and work performance.” School and work performance, in turn, affect one’s ability to succeed in the workforce and hold a job that pays a living, not minimum, wage. Thus begins the divide of those who have enough to cover their expenses, and those who live under constant economic strain.

In thinking about and taking action to prevent hunger, it is important to remember that emotions related to hunger are relevant to and experienced by everyone. When was the last time you felt something missing from your life? Most people experience emptiness and unsatisfied need of one kind or another, and these feelings can be applied to thinking about starvation and food insecurity. By finding the hungers you personally experience in your own life, it becomes easier to understand what hunger might mean in someone else’s life. The emotions involved in hunger become a common experience. I am not saying emotional, psychological and spiritual hungers are the same as physical hunger, but I am suggesting that finding ways to bring oneself closer to the experience of hunger of any kind is a step in the direction of understanding and caring about the problem, because it becomes personal.

As fellow human beings, we have the power to unite, the power to love and care for each other, and the power to make decisions and work together to create the kind of world we want to live in. An important step in initiating change is the ability to understand and connect with each other across the economic, racial, sexual, gender and faith-based lines that divide us. Through that understanding, we can foster care and respect for each other. Try to understand the hungers you feel in your own life- then apply that experience to your thoughts on physical hunger. The realities of feeling empty are something no one wants to endure in their daily life.

Disconnecting oneself from the truths of another person’s life harms the very root of common experience. In this uprooting, a disconnect that allows one to ignore the problems of one’s fellow human beings and live in a state of “blissful ignorance” is created. But why would you want to separate yourself from common human experiences? Is there not something affirming about the ability of humans to unify over common experience, and the power this unification can have to produce profound change?

“The crisis [of food strain] is here year round,” said Cohen. Let us not distance ourselves from the urgency of the hunger that exists right here in our community. Working locally to reduce and fight hunger is not only a way to work for a more just and fair society granting basic human rights to all people— it is a way to overcome the divisions that foster lack of understanding and care towards each other. It creates a stronger community, which can ultimately have a profound effect on the entire spectrum of current national and international social issues.