My Father Almost Starved in North Korea. Hunger is Personal to Me | Opinion

My father was born in what is now North Korea, in a village outside of Pyongyang. As one of six children, he faced hunger and poverty daily. He and his family often resorted to eating grass to satisfy their hunger pangs. He couldn't go to school. During the day, he was sometimes tasked with scouring restaurant garbage bins for eggshells, known for their calcium, which my grandmother would grind for hours to make into a soup base.

When my father was 6 years old, not long before the Korean War broke out, his Christian family fled to the south, hoping to escape the escalating violence, religious persecution and poverty. They escaped in the middle of the night through bouts of gunfire, my father carrying his younger cousin on his back. Years later, when I was also 6 years old, he would move again for a better life—taking my siblings and me from Seoul to the United States.

Today, I'm the head of one of the largest Christian advocacy organizations in the country; we speak up for legislation and policies that will end hunger in the U.S. and around the world. But ending hunger isn't a job for me; it is deeply personal because I know how hunger echoes through generations.

I didn't hear the words "I love you" from my father until I was 38 years old. I remember the exact moment, camping in 2008 together, how I quietly sobbed in my tent later that night. I had harbored resentment over it for so long, jealous of my American friends whose parents used the words every day. It wasn't until afterward, when I looked into it further, that I realized how typical this experience is among Korean Americans.

Older generation Koreans use a different saying to convey love. In English it's, "Have you eaten?" To this day, no matter what time I call my parents, it's the first thing they'll ask. It took me decades to understand that because of the poverty that devastated the country before and after the war, feeding someone became the ultimate act of love. For so many Koreans of their generation, words meant very little; food means everything. When they ask me, "Have you eaten?" they are saying, "Because I love you, I want to make sure that you're nourished."

Looking back on my childhood—all the times my parents said, "We're not hungry," —I understand now that they chose not to eat because they wanted their kids to have enough. In the 1970s and 1980s, we were the classic immigrant family. We didn't have much, and all of us worked. My parents ran a grocery store in San Francisco, and my brothers and I worked there every day after school until closing. Food, literally, became the center of my parents' lives. They never took a meal for granted.

When I visit people in vulnerable communities abroad, I sometimes ask parents what they dream about for their children. They often say that they dream for their children to wake up and know there will be food to eat that day.

In this country every day, millions of people are wrestling with choosing to buy sufficient food or pay rent. In the U.S., Latino and Black families struggle to feed their children at two to three times, respectively, the rates of white families, and one in six children in the U.S. lives in a household that is at risk of hunger. These are staggering statistics, especially considering that enough food is produced today to feed everyone in the world.

A baker holds a freshly baked baguette
A baker holds a freshly baked baguette. Chesnot/Getty Images

Government food programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and WIC (supplemental nutrition for low-income pregnant women, infants and children) are literally lifelines for people. There are now more than 41 million people on the SNAP program, up more than 15 percent from about 36 million in 2019. I have personal experience with these programs. When my wife and I were trying to start our church, we went through a season of unemployment, and we would not have been able to feed our children without WIC.

This problem isn't one a single U.S. household can solve. Instead, these statistics emphasize the complexity of solving hunger, the need for policies that address food systems and access to food, climate change, employment, conflict and food prices. But make no mistake—hunger is solvable in our lifetime. Meaningful change can happen with collective will and action, from governments to churches.

Key provisions in the Build Back Better Act could significantly reduce hunger among our nation's children. These include an extension of the expanded Child Tax Credit and the strengthening of child nutrition programs. The rate of severe food insecurity among eligible families dropped by almost 30 percent since Child Tax Credit payments were issued. The House passed it before Thanksgiving, but now the Senate needs to act. I encourage everyone to write or call their senators and ask them to support these life-changing provisions.

My father may have escaped hunger and changed the trajectory of me and my brothers' lives, but the memory of hunger still weighs heavily on my family. The reason I get up every morning is because I know there is a solution. The end of hunger can be the greatest legacy we ever leave our children.

Rev. Eugene Cho is president and CEO of Bread for the World.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.