Earlier in the week, I reported on a new movement of citizens who are fasting in order to protest the Congressional budget cuts. The group includes New York Times foodie Mark Bittman, prominent progressive evangelical leader Jim Wallis, David Beckmann, the president of Bread for the World, and members of MoveOn.org and the SEIU.
Now, Congressional representatives have joined the ranks of anti-austerity activists, including US Representative Jan Schakowsky, who has announced she too will be fasting to protesting the draconian budget cuts. Schakowsky will be taking the place of Representative Barbara Lee, who had been fasting since Thursday (drinking “water only,” according to an aide,) and Keith Ellison announced he would also go without food in protest.
Other representatives participating include Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), Rosa DeLauro (D-OH), Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) and Jim McGovern (D-MA). In total, twenty-eight members of Congress (all Democrats) will be going without food. Each representative has agreed to fast for at least a day, and thus far the “fasting schedule” appears to be set up like a relay where each person fills the slot of the fasting representative who came before.
Of course, these representatives don’t imagine their, in some cases, day-long hunger strikes come anywhere close to accurately replicating the strife felt by America’s working poor. Rather, members of Congress want to draw attention to the cruelty of the proposed cuts, which Schakowsky describes as “draconian, reckless and meanspirited.”
The entire fasting movement has now grown to 30,000 participants, according to Wallis, ranging from Christian groups like World Vision and Opportunity International to secular groups such as Women Thrive Worldwide and the ONE campaign. For Wallis, who is currently in his eleventh day of the fast, the outpouring of support from both sides of the political spectrum, and now Congressional representatives, has been enormously heartening. He shares some inspiring messages of solidarity.
[A] doctor friend, calling with concerns about my health, said, “Well, I walked into church today and our youth group announced a 30-hour fast for the poor and a moral budget, and said they were inspired by your fast.” Also, a Jewish activist joining our water fast told me he was re-reading the biblical story of Esther, who called the people to a public fast to change the king’s mind. He spoke about the emotions he felt when he imagined his 2-year-old daughter having the hunger pangs he was now experiencing. Low-income workers from my hometown of Detroit, Michigan came to one of our Congressional events to thank us for fasting, and to say they were joining us.
Nationwide, local figures have also joined the fast, including Bronx leader Heidi Hynes, who says to describe the impact cuts have on people in her community would be impossible, and adds that the community center she runs will likely have to terminate half its services over the next year. “It would be unconscionable under any circumstances to abdicate our civic responsibility to maintain a social safety net for those most in need,” says Hynes.
In St. Louis, an area food bank’s staff is also fasting. The forty-six staff members will adopt a similar relay strategy to take turns going without food until April 24. The group is joining a national campaign launched by Feeding America, a nonprofit organization that consists of 200 food banks and food rescue organizations.
Vicki Escarra, president and CEO of Feeding America, says the organization provides for more than 37 million people who come to its food pantries, soup kitchens and emergency shelters every year, and the group struggles to keep up with the 46 percent increase in food assistance it’s seen since 2006. “We have enormous help from our corporate partners and individual donors, but charity alone cannot provide enough food to ensure that everyone who needs help gets three square meals a day—federal nutrition programs must be safeguarded from cuts,” says Escarra.
To Bill Shore, the executive director and founder of Share Our Strength, a group also participating in the fast, this movement is about using the microcosm act of a hunger strike to draw attention to the pandemic of poverty which harms the most vulnerable members of our society.
“Fasting is a personal decision, but the real power of a fast is that it brings urgency to an issue that is often overlooked,” said Shore. “Whether individuals choose to fast or to spread the word to friends and colleagues or contact elected officials, we can stand together to say we can do better for America’s children.”