The Other Side Of The Story

On Christmas night I sat down for a short while to watch the headlines of the daily news on television.  I have been cutting back on what news I watch recently because of the often traumatic nature of it.  Now days I might watch the first ten minutes and then leave it.  That way I know some of what is going on, but don’t need to torment myself with the rest.

The first story was the record number of people who had attended the Auckland (NZ’s largest city) City Mission Christmas dinner.  These types of free meals have been run in major centres for years, and provide a free meal and entertainment for those who can not afford to have their own celebration.

What struck me was the way the newsreader told it.  There was almost glee in his voice as if he was talking about record numbers attending a car show, or some other event where record numbers would be looked on as a good thing.

For me, I see the record numbers as a terribly bad thing, that more and more people are having to turn to charitable organisations to enable some celebration of Christmas.  We should be looking to find ways of making these numbers go down rather than up.  It’s just wrong.  Ironically there were even people there who were tourists in New Zealand.  the bus tour they were on had brought them there for their Chritmas meal.  I admired the head of the City Mission who said it was fine they were there because they were seeing another side to New Zealand.  I just hope they paid for their meal.

I love that these events happen each year, and actually I have grown up  all my life being part of such events.  My parents would regularly do family Christmas celebrations for us at lunch time on Christmas Day, and then we would be involved in putting on a community meal at night for those who had no where else to go.  Mum would do most of the cooking and Dad would be out front welcoming people.  Us kids were often doing the dishes.

It is wonderful that so many give up their time (and money) to run these meals, but the fact that there is growing need for such events simply suggests to me that people are struggling more and so many people are alone.

This is one event where record-breaking statistics should be very unwelcome.  Yes there will always be people alone, and for them I am glad these events still exist.  But many of the people attending are families who simply can not afford to celebrate Christmas.

Image credit: FB/Fresh Minds Matter

Image credit: FB/Fresh Minds Matter

Straight after Christmas Day, in this country comes Boxing Day on 26 December.  It is a day recognised in most Commonwealth countries (although feel free to correct me if I’m wrong).  Boxing Day used to be a day to go to the beach in New Zealand, or better yet, the day to head off on your summer holiday.

Traditionally though, Boxing Day was a day to give money and gifts to the poor.  I grew up with the explanation that is was the day when servants packed up (in boxes) all the left overs from Christmas, and gave them to the poor.  Also it was a day when servants who had worked hard through Christmas Day, could have time off to visit their own families.

Boxing Day is probably one of those events where there are many different explanations, but it seems that giving to the more needy is a common thread.  I suspect most countries who recognise Boxing Day have lost this aspect to it, and I think that is sad.  I also have this question in my head of why the poor had to wait to simply get what amounts to ‘leftovers’?  And why couldn’t the rich give to the poor before Christmas?

I think what disturbs me most is what has happened to Boxing Day now.  Boxing Day has lost that charitable aspect and now is a consumer day.  It is now the day when the retail sales start, in the same line as the Black Friday sales in the United States after Thanksgiving.

How did we go from a day recognised for giving to the poor, to a mad scramble around the shops to get the best bargains possible?  Isn’t there something wrong with that?

Personally I don’t handle large crowds of people and so the idea of going shopping for the Boxing Day sales is completely beyond me.  I’m not interested in what bargains I might be able to get, and would rather preserve my mental health.

Boxing Day was yesterday in New Zealand, and like I had done the night before, I watched the first ten minutes of the television news.  The headlines were the record sales for the retail sector.

What I’m wondering is how many people buying up on Boxing Day could really afford what they were buying?  How many purchased on credit, and will struggle to pay it off?  And dare I say it, I wonder if there were people at the Christmas Day meals who were also at the sales, trying to get a bargain?  I don’t mean to criticise them personally.  I criticise a system that has the extremes of wealth and poverty, which no one appears to be trying to align.

There is something wrong with this side of the story.  The news readers don’t stop to align the two, but I bet the social workers who will be trying to help people budget their money know it only too well.

“Every life deserves a certain amount of dignity, no matter how poor or damaged the shell that carries it.” 

―    Rick Bragg,    All Over But the Shoutin’

Anyone Hungry?

Does that look like a good start for lunch?
Image courtesy of [healingdream] / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

If you’re not,
there are plenty who are, 
including
many New Zealand children sadly.

Spending years with my head buried in requisite textbooks wasn’t that easy for me.  I’m not really an academic person, it was simply a means to an end.  I came out at the end with a degree in Sociology and Social Work, yet still I was frustrated by it all.  I wanted to know how all this academia applied to real people, in real society.  Over the years, before and after that time as a student, I worked in a number of jobs where I was continually confronted by the realities of poverty in New Zealand.

Yes, poverty is very real in New Zealand.  You won’t see it on the tourist brochures, and I suspect if you are so inclined, you could just ignore it and just blame the people who are stuck in that trap.  But it’s there, and we have a particularly big problem in the area of child poverty.  One of the issues that has been in the news lately has been the disturbingly high numbers of children at school with no lunch (in this country children bring their own lunch to school), and many have also had no breakfast.

I don’t have a lot to do with children at the moment, apart from my lovely nieces and nephews, but I know that children are our future.  What happens to children now, defines what happens to our world in the future.  It makes me realise it’s necessary to talk about it, and even more so, do my bit towards seeing that poverty end.

Last week, New Zealand participants took part in the Live Below The Line campaign, which has already been seen in other countries including the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States.

The challenge put to participants was to spend 5 days feeding yourself with NZ$2.25 a day – the New Zealand equivalent of the extreme poverty line.  As a means of comparison, this compares with Aus$2.00 or US$1.25 per day.  That’s not much, is it?  The idea behind it is to get people thinking about how it is to live in the situation of extreme poverty, something faced by 1.4 billion people in our world today.

I was fascinated to read an account of one woman’s experience of being on the Challenge:

“By day two, my coordination was down, I lunged onto someone in a group fitness class, and I only managed half of my usual Wednesday workout before declaring myself too tired! On average I needed an extra two hours sleep a night throughout the challenge, my energy levels were so zapped, and I lost 2kg in 5 days, which didn’t strike me as the healthiest of crash diets. Its (sic) clear that to live like this everyday would be detrimental to your health.

But I think what got me the most during the challenge, was the effect that being hungry has on your brain. I found myself making basic errors, simple spelling mistakes and needing people to repeat themselves on the phone – my concentration was shot to pieces, and one day I wore a top inside out for an  hour before I noticed…

For me it adds huge weight to the current debate about food in schools, having witnessed first hand how useless I was when my brain hadn’t been fed, I can’t see how a hungry child is supposed to learn or retain information at school, and that’s looking at life in a modern, developed country – let alone in countries where people are trying to survive on under $2.25 a day.”  (1.)

This comment really hit home hard to me for a reason, that actually I wasn’t expecting.  I’ve never had to live in extreme poverty thankfully, although my parents were far from wealthy when I was growing up.   I have gone hungry though, although for me it was entirely self-inflicted, via the illness Anorexia Nervosa, which I struggled with for many years.  What hit me is how familiar all this is, although I totally accept that mine was borne out of mental illness and not an issue of a shortage of money and access to services.

Interestingly, after years of starving myself, I learnt not to feel hunger and even though I am recovered today, I still find that I don’t feel hungry, even though I may need nutrition.  For those on the 5 day Challenge though, I’m sure they all felt hunger.

I’m wondering whether my training my body out of feeling hungry is the same for the children who do not have access to regular meals?  Do they somehow learn to not feel the hunger pains?  I suspect they probably do, but actually that is far from good.  We need to have accurate messages from our bodies in order to be able to meet the needs our bodies have.  But when you’re in extreme poverty, you can’t meet those needs.

I don’t claim to be any sort of expert on nutrition, or on the effects of malnutrition, but this quote below, describes very clearly the effects to the author of malnutrition caused by Anorexia, very similar to my own experience:

“Physically, things were less than princess-like.  For a start, my hair was falling out.  My teeth were turning yellow and felt loose, like my gums had shrunk.  My pulse was slow. I was hypoglycemic.  I hadn’t had a period in four months.  I was dehydrated.  Constipated.  I was suffering from severe malnutrition and freezing all the time.  My hands, lips and feet were blue.  My eyes were dead.  My body chemistry was all over the place.” (2.)

Not for one moment am I suggesting that eating disorders have some connection to malnutrition caused by extreme poverty.  But it’s clear that malnutrition, of any cause, has a major impact on the body and it’s ability to function adequately.  As well as the matters highlighted above, my body has taken a lasting hit in terms of loss of bone density, reproductive ability and no doubt other matters of which I have yet to learn.  

I was an adult when I inflicted this on my body and mind, but imagine what the malnutrition (regardless of the cause) must do to a child and their ability to function.  I found it extremely difficult to concentrate and focus on standard every day activities.  Simply my brain wasn’t working adequately to cope.  How then, can a child learn and grow when they are constantly under-nourished?

One more thing to consider.  We know that childhood experience has a huge impact on mental health in future years.  My own mental illnesses were in some ways (but not all) a result of things that happened in my childhood.  What concerns me is that if a child is unable to function and grow, what is that doing to their mental health?  Both now and for the future.  I believe that the hunger faced by children in New Zealand, and many other developed countries, is going to have a detrimental impact on the health (including mental health) of our populations of the future.

New Zealand doesn’t look like a country that would have a child hunger problem.  It’s always been said that it is a great place to raise children, and in that respect I know I had a good childhood.  But you don’t have to scratch the surface very deep, to see that children (and adults)are regularly going without food, and that there is a constant battle for some people of whether to pay the rent or buy food for their families.  There’s simply not enough to cover both.  What that tells me,  is that those people need practical help now and if they don’t get it, from you and me, the future for us all doesn’t look good.

.

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” 

―    Franklin D. Roosevelt

Notes

2.  Robinson, Sancia (1996). Mary Jane – Living through anorexia and bulimia nervosa. Sydney: Random House, Australia.