Sasha Abramsky is an excellent journalist. In Breadline USA, his reporting skills are evident in the large amount of information he provides about hunger in America, giving equal weight to its causes and effects. But he does something more. He uses his talent as a writer to describe the effects of hunger in a manner that goes beyond reporting. He writes about food and the lack of it as a novelist would, and that is what makes reading the book such an emotional experience.
Abramsky is interested in poverty in America, and poverty leads to hunger. In the novel Moll Flanders, author Daniel Defoe's Moll prays, "Give me not poverty, lest I steal." But the underpaid Americans in Breadline USA do not steal food; they simply go without. A trip to the food pantry -- where they can get stale bread; assorted, unrelated canned goods; and past-sale-date, often inedible boxed foods -- is a routine part of the last week of every month -- when the paycheck money runs out.
Barbara Ehrenreich covered some of the same topics Abramsky covers in her book Nickel and Dimed, and Ehrenreich and Abramsky both went undercover in a way. Ehrenreich worked at low-paying jobs to see how she would survive, and Abramsky bought food and regulated his eating habits as if he were on a low-income food budget. He also made trips to the food pantry.
The book soars in the sections where Abramsky describes the wonderful foods he has enjoyed – the Passover dinners with his family, the Mother's Day trips to a fine restaurant, even the casual stops at local cafes for a latte and a pastry. These are sensuous, beautiful experiences that most of us take for granted, but Abramsky elevates them to their proper level, as precious moments to be grateful for and to remember.
By contrasting that high level of food security and food satisfaction most of us enjoy with the desperate, food-obsessed, stomach-growling undercurrent that becomes a normal state of being for the hungry people he encounters, Abramsky is able to communicate the meagerness of their food experience. That is where the book finds its true voice.
Books don't often make me cry, but when I read about the woman who thinks Campbell’s Chunky Soup poured over noodles is "like a delicacy," I actually sobbed. I thought about the macadamia nuts, white chocolate bar, and light brown sugar I had just bought to make a special cookie recipe for my daughter. I wanted to pack them in a box and send them to that woman.
But charity is not the answer. As Abramsky makes clear throughout Breadline USA, what needs to change is the way America treats it working people. A living wage needs to mean a wage that allows you to eat well for the entire month, every month. And until that happens, or in cases where people lose their jobs, an adequate food-security safety net must exist. Abramsky writes, "To share food is to share life." When people are hungry, and we do not help them, and change the system so that they can feed themselves, we are denying them participation in one of the basic elements of life.
Just for one day, eat only two meals. Make sure the meals are small, low in protein, and high in starch. Drink lots of tea to trick yourself into thinking your stomach is full. See how you feel. You won't like it. Neither do the Americans who feel that way most days of every month. Breadline USA is a factual account of hunger in America and an impassioned appeal to treat our fellow man as we would wish to be treated. It is a book that feeds your head and your heart.