OP ED: “MAKE FOOD SECURITY A PRIORITY”
As Christians, Lent is a special time for us, as it marks the 40 days of intense spiritual preparation for Easter. It is also a time of fasting as a way to exercise restraint and grow in spirit. During this time, we also intensify acts of penitence to remind us of our humanity and our weakness. This is a time to take stock of ourselves to become closer to our neighbors and to God.
Many churches use this time to bring attention to social causes and through acts of penance, often make extra efforts to help those in need. Whatever way Christians in American Samoa choose to observe Lent, it is also a time to care for our most needy brothers and sisters.
Here in our islands, poverty and hunger are still a big problem, especially for families with children.
Over half of our population lives below the poverty line, which for a family of four in 2013 was $23,000. Many of our families are much larger than four people, and families struggle with much less than $23,000 a year. Approximately 5000 families receive some sort of federal benefit like WIC, but even this is not enough to feed a family. In 2013, the average per person per month WIC allotment was $69.51, or $278.04 for a family of four (http://www.fns.usda.gov/pd/25wifyavgfd$.htm).
With just a little over $70 per person per month, it is difficult enough to feed our families, but if we make an effort to feed them healthy foods, it is nearly impossible. Even if the household averages $23,000 a year in salaries, this is roughly equivalent to $1000 a month after taxes. By the time the family pays utilities, family and church contributions, and does the laundry, there is little left for food. Yes, we are blessed to be in the islands where we have foods around us like banana and taro and coconuts. We can raise chickens, pigs, and fish our seas, but the fact still remains that food is very expensive and it is generally very difficult to provide healthy meals for many people here on island.
The American Samoa Department of Education does provide meals through the Federal School Lunch program, but there is no guarantee children will get healthy food outside school. Plus, even in this program there are problems with supplies, including reports over time of how some people have taken food home from the school cafeterias for use in their homes or church functions! How people can steal food from children is beyond me, but sadly, this what happens when people are chronically hungry for healthy meals. Some families are hungry enough to send out their children to steal from stores. If you don't believe this is happening, I can introduce you to some young people at the JDC, who are serving time for just trying to get food for their families.
What is the answer? This is not easy. We can't simply raise the minimum wage and not expect inflation. We can't simply raise taxes and tariffs to raise revenue for today, as it will drive up prices and possibly chase businesses out. That would put the last bullet in the wounded economy.
One thing we must do is continue to make food security a top priority. Food Security is the term social planners use to determine how a community can feed its population in times of stress (natural disasters, economic crises, droughts, etc.). We must continue to provide resources for farmers to expand their crop choices. But moreover, we must continue the talanoa in our islands. Find out who in your family or community is hungry. Hold those who abuse the system accountable. For our children to grow up strong and smart, we must give them healthy meals to build healthy bodies. Most importantly, we must pray. We must keep in mind the role that we Christians can play to care and act for those who are hungry.
As Jesus instructed us, "Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise” (Luke 3:11), and as Christians we should do so with joy because it is our blessing and honor to serve Christ through our works, not just during Lent, but throughout the year.
(Ms Blizzard works at the ASDOE as a Special Asst. to the Director and is a Worker priest, St. John’s Anglican Church in Lauli’i)