Hunger on Sesame Street

When I was a kid everyone knew Sesame Street. We all had our favourite characters (mine=Mr. Snuffleupagus) and could sing the songs and, even into high school and university, remember the skits. It was considered innovative and educational (so parents didn’t feel badly about plopping their peeps in front of the box) but it was also part of my generation’s shared popular culture because there wasn’t anything else on TV. Today, with hundreds of channels geared toward kids, it’s just one of many shows (educational and otherwise). My own children don’t know Sesame Street at all. But that doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly influential.

Sesame Street, in fact, is  still going strong spreading neighbourhood cheer, literacy skills and lessons on how to get along in the world. Last week Sesame Workshop introduced a new character named Lily, a 7-year-old who tells the Sesame Street gang about what it’s like to not have enough food to eat on a special program called “Growing Hope Against Hunger.”

Lily is intended to speak for the 17 million American kids who don’t know where their next meal is going to come from. It’s a pretty tough topic to take on for 2-8 year olds but the message is hopeful as she visits a community garden and visits with other characters.

Sponsored by Wal-Mart and other corporations, the tone is sweet and age-appropriate (“Everyone can help” and to the children living in poverty “You are not alone”) but I have to wonder about the underlying message that food pantries and food drives will solve hunger (“If we all work together”).

Food banks/pantries came into common use in the 1980s but, in fact, hunger and poverty have increased since that time. I’m not saying they don’t help families and children out in emergency circumstances. They do. And there are many good people spending a lot of time and energy trying to make sure these places are respectful and offer healthy, culturally appropriate food. But to suggest that food handouts are solving hunger is simply not true.

In fact, I think saying this encourages a kind of complacency on the part of all of us. What we hear is that the problem is being dealt with and we can go back to collecting cans and hoping for the best. We conveniently forget the messy reality that there are  structural reasons for hunger and poverty, and the root of those reasons lie in policy and political decisions made by governments. It’s a harder slog to affect political will than to donate canned corn, but if we’re going to change the circumstances of those 17 million school kids (and millions more elsewhere), we have to ask tough questions about why hunger and poverty exist in the first place. And we have to challenge our governments to do something about low wages and inadequate social supports, about creating affordable housing, health care and child care.

Some will say Sesame Street isn’t the place to begin that conversation, but the power and impact of children’s TV programming is clear. Think of all those little girls dressing up like Hannah Montana or the Disney Princesses. Or remember your own childhood.  I can’t be the only person who still sorts out how a bill becomes a law by remembering that seminal Schoolhouse Rock! episode on the subject.

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