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January 01, 2010

Let's Hear it for the Eaters

by Kathy Goldman

Food as a human right? Of course! People cannot live without it. Here in the United States floods are rare and we do not have famine, tsunamis, or wars––the natural and unnatural causes of hunger worldwide. In fact, the United States sends quantities of food all over the world to help stem starvation and want. But here at home we have an abundance of food—in stores small and large, farmers’ markets, everywhere you turn. So what is the problem in America? Lack of money to buy the food. The solution is simple: Make sure every family and individual has enough money to cover the cost of their basic food needs. Unfortunately, that is not going to happen soon.

Instead we have set in place structures that kick in when “just go out and buy it” fails—government food support programs such as food stamps; the child nutrition programs including school breakfast and lunch; summer meals; the Supplemental Feeding Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC); child care/day care meals; and meals for senior citizens. The Emergency Food Network of food banks, soup kitchens, and food pantries has grown to fill the gap when those do not meet the need. Unfortunately, even all of those efforts are not enough and do not reach many of those living in poverty.

Why do we even have this “system”? There are significant contradictions: Americans do not want to be reminded that there are poor and hungry people in their midst. The exception is the “hunger season”—the period from Thanksgiving through Christmas when it is all right to remind people of the reality. Yet Americans cannot stand the thought of people going hungry and we donate tons of food, millions of dollars, and hours of volunteer time to help. In a crisis, where there is no organized network we bring food to churches or community centers or directly to our neighbors.

If we can agree that food is a basic necessity and a right but that it is unlikely that the U.S. food system will be overhauled soon, what can we do? First, we can make the current structure broader and better. That would mean a significant increase in federal dollars to programs that work but that need more funds such as food stamps, (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). The amount of food stamps people get should be based on the reality of need, not the current outmoded calculation (you try feeding four people four meals from one turkey leg). Actually, during this economic crisis, the Obama administration increased the amount of food stamps for families and individuals by about 19 percent and localities increased outreach. In New York City, for example, participation has increased by 700,000. During this recession more people, including many who never thought they would need this support, have signed up. Hopefully this will help destigmatize food stamps as we now accept Social Security, Medicare, and Unemployment Insurance, all of which were “unacceptable” at their inception. And those food stamp dollars go right into the economy. Think about the stimulus when more people eat!

Another example of how expanding an existing program could make a big difference: school breakfast and lunch. Under the current system, a complex family income application determines whether a child is eligible for free or reduced-price meals. (All meals are federally subsidized—even the ones for kids who pay.) The application excludes many and creates an “it’s poor kids’ food stigma. The result is that in middle and high schools, many do not eat at all for fear that their peers will think they are poor, or that the food is inferior. But if school meals were universally free, it would destigmatize them! Public education in this country is free—our children get seats, books, even musical instruments, and no one bats an eye. And, just think of the stimulus if tens of thousands more children were eating every day. Schools would need to hire more cooks and cafeteria staff, thus providing more jobs in every community. Millions of dollars now spent on collecting forms and checking off each child’s income category every day could be reallocated to educational purposes. Our children could receive delicious, nutritious meals and learn about healthy food, and we could have a major impact on the obesity and diabetes epidemics. Those federal dollars would come back many times over in decreased health-care costs, both now and down the line.

It is important to step back and look at some broad issues. Food is not just a “poor people’s issue.” All members of society eat. The focus for food policies in this country is the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Under the current system, the USDA is geared to the needs and support of the growers, not the eaters . The usual answer to questions and problems is that “market forces” will be the solution, but that has never really been true; the United States has numerous farm supports in place. The government often pays farmers not to grow food, and where there is an overabundance, USDA purchases from the growers, all geared to artificially inflate prices. USDA then distributes the purchased commodities to schools and other programs free or at low cost. So much for market forces.

We should note that the important food programs for low-income Americans were supported in Congress by the farm states and their leaders, basically out of self-interest, and not out of concern about the effects of poverty. (An aside: If you think politics is not a factor in food allocation and distribution, spend a little time reviewing the relationship between products grown in a president’s state and the commodities purchased by the government. During the Carter administration it was peanuts, peanut butter, peanut granules, peanut oil; Reagan brought us raisins and prunes; and chickens were abundant when Arkansas gave us Clinton.) The farm bloc states have powerful political clout that is most often used to benefit large-scale corporate farms, and it is not likely that the government will be moved to take the profit motive out of food production and sales in order to make sure all Americans eat. So what can we do to give the “eaters” a voice?

How about creating a Department of Food Policy? On both a federal and local level a Department of Food Policy could have a profound effect. Does your state, city, town, county have anyone paying attention to food? How does it get to your neighborhoods? Are there “food deserts” in your area—food-barren neighborhoods? Are there modern supermarkets with a variety of healthful foods available to all and where they are located and how many are needed? Is there planning for food needs in the event of a catastrophe? (For example, are designated food stores required to have generators so refrigeration does not shut down as it did in lower Manhattan after 9/11?) Is junk food allowed in school vending machines? Is junk food advertising to children strictly controlled? Is there a limit on the number of fast-food operators in your neighborhoods? Shouldn’t fast-food operations be kept at least two blocks from schools (as is done with liquor stores)? What’s wrong and what’s right with the way your area handles food stamps and other support programs? The current recession shows that yesterday’s middle-class job-holder can slip quickly into today’s low-income or unemployed category. Is the welcome mat out for all or is government barring the door?

These are just a few examples of why we need to change the focus of local, regional, and federal food policies and attention. Once average people begin to realize that they have a stake in food issues, they will also begin to look closely at what happens to those families and individuals who cannot go out and buy the food they need, and systems will change. Sure, certain radio and TV stations will scream about interference in the free market, but let’s face it—the United States does that already. It is just a question of interference on whose behalf. We, the eaters, need to be heard.

Kathy Goldman

Kathy Goldman is co-director of Community Food Advocates in New York City.