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November 30, 2019 HUMAN RIGHTS

Solve Hunger with Anti-Poverty Policies, Not Anti-Hunger Policies

by Alexandra Holden

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Economic Research Service, 15 million households in the United States, or 11.8 percent, suffered from food insecurity in 2017, defined as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.” In a survey conducted by the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), 45 percent of adults surveyed consider hunger in the United States a serious problem. Eighty-six percent agreed with the statement “in the United States no one should go hungry.” Yet, 46 percent of those same adults believed that eradicating hunger is not an achievable goal. This is because the United States does not consider access to affordable, healthy food a right necessitating governmental protection.

We in the United States do not treat food access as a basic human right; we treat it as a privilege. Our hunger safety net programs do not reach everyone in need and our social safety net policies fail to recognize the need to eliminate poverty as a first step to eliminating hunger. Some levels of our government choose to remain indolent about our hunger crisis, or even threaten to cut these programs’ funding and reduce eligibility. State and local governments routinely pass legislation to protect our nation’s hungriest, while the current presidential administration faces warranted backlash for proposing cuts to eligibility for SNAP and WIC. This comes as no surprise when we consider our historical record with human rights.

Native American's Cheyyene River Reservation, Eagle Butte, South Dakota.

Native American's Cheyyene River Reservation, Eagle Butte, South Dakota.

The History of Food as a Human Right

The United States has had three chances to recognize food as a basic human right. In 1944, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) proposed his Second Bill of Rights. The right to “earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation,” was included. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt took her late husband’s draft of the Second Bill of Rights to the United Nations (UN), where it contributed to the formation of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

On December 10, 1948, the UN voted to adopt the UDHR. Article 25 of the UDHR states that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care. . . .” Over 160 countries have ratified the UDHR, yet 70 years later it remains unratified by the United States. The United States has also failed to ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966, which demands governmental guarantees to health, education, social protection, and an adequate standard of living for all people. While President Jimmy Carter signed the Covenant in 1977, it too remains unratified.

Without ratification of the UDHR or the Covenant, the U.S. government is not required to protect the rights contained within these documents and cannot face punishment from the international community for failing to protect these rights. When someone in the United States faces hunger, their only form of assistance comes in the form of social safety net programs.

Anti-Hunger Programs in the United States

At present, when an individual in the United States becomes food insecure and meets certain requirements, they are eligible for food safety net programs meant to provide temporary relief. These include SNAP, WIC, National School Lunch Program, Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), and many more. These programs reduce hunger by lifting families out of poverty by supplementing the income of the family to push their income over the poverty line. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services determined that for a family of four to be considered living in poverty, their annual income must be $25,750 or less. Many question the value of using the U.S. poverty line as a measure for determining safety net program eligibility because it does not take into consideration the cost of living and is also falling further from the median family income.

One of the most effective programs at lifting families out of poverty is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. According to the U.S. Census, SNAP lifted 3.4 million people, including 1.5 million children, out of poverty in 2017.

The American Dream Doesn't Work for Everyone

SNAP lifts families out of poverty by freeing up money that would otherwise go toward food, allowing it to instead go toward other necessities like clothing, housing, and medical expenses. However, while SNAP has proved immensely powerful to many, it does not lift everyone out of poverty. People both above and below the poverty line can qualify for SNAP. This is because having a job no longer guarantees that you can stay above the poverty line and staying above the poverty line does not mean that you are no longer poor. Of the 45.7 million individuals who received SNAP benefits in the 2015 fiscal year (FY), 44 percent were children, 10.6 percent were older adults, and 9.5 percent were non-elderly adults with disabilities. The remaining 35.9 percent of SNAP benefit recipients are non-disabled, non-elderly adults. Many of those able-bodied adults worked during the 2015 FY, yet still live in deep enough poverty to qualify for SNAP. These people are known as “the working poor.”

The “working poor” is defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as individuals who spend at least 27 weeks of the year working or looking for work, yet still fall below the federal poverty line. Despite working full-time jobs, many find themselves in poverty due to low wages, unstable work schedules, and the high costs of living in poverty, to name only a few reasons. Costs like childcare, education, banking, transportation, housing, and medical expenses are all rising at rates such that, for many families, the minimum wage even when working full time is insufficient.

According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), the number of SNAP applications steadily rose between 2007 and 2013 by 81 percent due to the Great Recession. Though the number of people enrolled in SNAP has dropped since its 2012 high, the numbers remain above pre-recession levels. This is partly because even when the unemployment rates improve, the poverty rates tend to lag several years, keeping SNAP enrollment relatively higher. A 2019 report from CBPP indicates that both the proportion and the number of individuals participating in SNAP have increased since 2007. More people have become eligible for SNAP, and utilization has increased from 2007 to 2016 as well. In 2007, 37 million people were eligible, while 69 percent participated, and in 2016, 47 million people were eligible, while 85 percent participated. Many variables could explain these increases, such as a reduction in the stigma surrounding SNAP, greater awareness of the program, and higher costs of living adding to the stress of families living at or near poverty levels.

Hunger is Caused by Poverty

Poverty exacerbates one’s food insecurity, even when food safety net programs are in place and utilized effectively. In the United States, roughly 23 million individuals in 2014 lived in a food desert, according to Move for Hunger. The USDA defines food deserts as areas where people have limited access to a variety of healthy and affordable food. For rural communities, an area is defined as a food desert if the nearest supermarket is more than 10 miles away. For urban communities, this distance is one mile. Measurements of food deserts add the caveat that the food source be an actual supermarket. Food deserts can force individuals to travel great distances, which can be expensive or dangerous, to buy food.

The South Shore neighborhood lies just south of the University of Chicago, where I am a senior. In 2015, this Chicago community had a median household income of $26,425 according to the Community Data Snapshot, only $675 above the poverty line, and no grocery stores. The community has survived with a handful of corner stores, and those with a car travel to Indiana to buy groceries. Local politicians have worked for years with supermarket executives to bring in a grocery store. Many communities in food deserts are not so lucky.

Food desert communities rely on corner stores to provide their basic sustenance. Because these stores typically have a monopoly on the food supply in an area, they can charge exorbitant prices. If a store offers fresh produce, these prices will be even higher, sometimes forcing patrons to choose unhealthier options. Often unfairly blamed for the food choices they make, low-income parents can be unjustly chastised no matter what they purchase for their children. Difficult food decisions can lead to malnutrition and undernourishment, symptoms of food insecurity.

Hunger as it Affects Native Americans

In 2012, 5.2 million people identified as Native American across more than 570 federally recognized tribes. One in four Native Americans face food insecurity compared to one in eight Americans overall.

Native communities face extremely high rates of poverty, and it is this poverty which is one of the largest contributors to the statistic that Native American families are 400 percent more likely than the average U.S. household to be food insecure. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Native Americans faced a poverty rate of 26.2 percent in 2016, over twice as high as the 12.7 percent national poverty rate in 2016. Due to this intense poverty, many tribal communities lack significant economic opportunity. Resources are often far flung and public transportation is extremely limited, forcing individuals to rely on others for rides to work or the nearest store.

Food deserts are abundant across Native communities. SNAP is not the most practical program for Native Americans, given the limited availability of stores in tribal communities that can accept SNAP. While seven in ten Native Americans live in urban areas, the remaining three do not, according to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2015. The FDPIR provides monthly “commodities” boxes containing shelf-stable foods to Natives living in remote areas and cannot be used in conjunction with SNAP. The FDPIR has operated since 1973 when the commodities were high in preservatives, sugar, fat, and oils. These boxes contributed to the degradation of Native health, serving as the only source of food for many who used them, despite being designed as a supplemental source of nutrition.

How My Nation is Combatting Hunger

My Nation (the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma) is working to take back my people’s health in a way that my nation (the United States) is unwilling to do. Our tribal leaders advocate for healthier and more traditional items in the commodities boxes. The Choctaws have also built a chain of grocery stores across our territory in Oklahoma, carrying Native-made products, which may become SNAP retailers. We run community gardens and may adopt a program to allow SNAP recipients to spend their benefits at our Native-run farmers’ markets. Hunger persists across tribal lands due to poverty and its malicious effects. Poverty causes crime, low academic achievement, higher costs of living, and hunger, according to the Choctaw Nation’s Promise Zone project. When hunger persists, it is not anti-hunger policy that will help these families, it is anti-poverty policy.

USDA is working to expand access to farmers’ markets for those participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

USDA is working to expand access to farmers’ markets for those participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

We Need Economic Justice So We Can Have Food Justice

Recall FDR’s Second Bill of Rights. He argued for “the right to earn enough to provide adequate food” not simply for food access. Food safety net programs are no longer enough. While we continue to successfully lift more families out of poverty each year, this number should grow considerably faster than it has. In a modern, industrialized nation like our own, no one should live in poverty. We need to improve the minimum wage, demand stability for wage workers’ schedules, and recognize that being poor is an expensive burden.

Our country has allowed poverty to become normalized rather than deciding that no person living in our country should live impoverished. People should not have to rely on the charity of food banks or kind neighbors to survive. People should be able to make living wages and afford food along with all their other necessary expenses. Food assistance is no longer enough. To end hunger, we need economic justice. We need the United States to recognize that food is a basic human right and that any person living in our country should be able to afford to put healthy food on the table.

The American Bar Association passed Resolution 107 in February 2014. This resolution urges governments to “promote the human right to adequate food and nutrition for all through increased funding, development and implementation of strategies to prevent infringement of that right.” It also urges the U.S. government to “make the realization of a human right to adequate food a principal objective of U.S. domestic policy.” The United States faces no dearth of food; it is inequitable access to this food that we suffer from.

Alexandra Holden is a fourth-year student at the University of Chicago majoring in political science and Germanic studies with a minor in human rights.