2.24.2015

The Food Issues Book Club: How Hungry is America, Chapter 13

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

How Hungry is America, Chapter 13: Bolstering Community Food Production and Marketing

Summary:

Sustainable food activists are doing good and necessary work, but too often demean those struggling with food insecurity.  "The growing community food security movement in America is a much-needed force that aims to aid small farmers and promote organic or sustainable food, but I hope that they can join the antihunger movement in making the needs of the lowest-income Americans central to any proposed solution."

Corporate consolidation in the food industry has been a driving force behind community food production.  We've seen a steady rise of community gardens, farmers' markets, and CSAs as a result.  However, prices and time constraints can keep those most in need away from participating.  So can the attitudes so frequently brought into these spaces: "Perhaps the most egregious example of this attitude is the assertion that increasing food prices are a good thing because they deter people from buying junk food.

Yet the assumptions these attitudes are based on must be examined.  Organic foods, while unarguably better for environment and workers, may or may not be more healthful for consumers.  Locally grown food may or may not have any health, labor, or environmental advantages, dependent on specifics of production.  Thus the "organic" and "local" labels so touted by food sustainability groups don't necessarily indicate "better" foodstuffs - but almost always indicate a higher price tag.

Community gardens can have many positive impacts, but can also be impractical or impossible for many community members to take part in.  It is downright "preposterous" to imply that "people should work in a community garden instead of getting food stamps."  Time, money, access to land, access to tools, weather, health, and myriad other factors can create significant barriers to participation in such initiatives.

Community nutrition is supported by three factors: 1) healthful food that is available; 2) healthful food that is affordable, and 3) the knowledge necessary to choose and prepare that food.  Too many projects support only one or two of these pillars; all three must be in place before cries of "personal responsibility" have any merit.  All three are beyond the capacity of individuals or communities to build for themselves, and all three are necessary for good community nutrition to exist.

Discussion:

THIS.  This is why last month's book bothered me so much!  THIS is why listening to Alice Waters talk made my skin crawl.  THIS is why Cowspiracy and many other food issues movies make me CRAZY.  It's the persistent message that "everyone" should just "make better choices!"  "Everyone" should just stop being lazy and grow their own food!  "Everyone" can if they just want to!!

Well friends, no.  NOT everyone.  Not even close.  A short list of just some of people who can't "just" make better choices:
  • people with disabilities
  • people on fixed incomes
  • children
  • people without access to land
  • people without the time to garden
  • people who don't have transportation to get to stores with said "better" choices
  • people who can't afford those "better" choices anyway
Per the USDA, as of 2013 there remained MILLIONS of food insecure people in the US.  To wit:

How Many People Lived in Food-Insecure Households?

In 2013:
  • 49.1 million people lived in food-insecure households.
  • 12.2 million adults lived in households with very low food security.
  • 8.6 million children lived in food-insecure households in which children, along with adults, were food insecure.
  • 765,000 children (1.0 percent of the Nation's children) lived in households in which one or more child experienced very low food security.
For more information, see Food Insecurity in the U.S.: Frequency of Food Insecurity.
So, no.  NOT everyone.  When any statement made to the general public claims that "everyone" should do something, it should not exclude tens of millions of people in that public.  That's not to say, though, that people of higher income and greater privilege shouldn't be engaged in both food sustainability and food security.  People of all socioeconomic statuses - everyone in every community in the US - should be playing whatever part possible to ensure that food is available to all and being produced sustainably and responsibly.

That IS to say that, when we of higher wealth and greater privilege do speak, write, and act on these issues, we MUST do so in a way that a) respects that not "everyone" has the same access and ability, and b) is deferential to the concerns of communities in need.

We must also never couch our arguments in terms of, for instance, gardening instead of using food stamps.  In fact these two things can work wonderfully hand in hand for those food stamp recipients who are able to engage in micro-farming.  This is not an either/or equation.  Resolving hunger in communities will take attacks from all possible angles.

I am hyper-aware of the fact that I am a white lady with feelings.  I also have no desire to contribute to the white savior complexes with which New Orleans is currently drenched.  I am still learning to navigate the balance between embracing the responsibility of my privilege and not using it to determine and dictate a community's issues.  Given that I just started three sentences in a row with "I" (and there's three of them in this sentence), I likely have a ways to go in this area.

All food activists share a common ground: we understand that the US food system has become toxic on every level and at every stage of production and supply.  To create artificial divisions based on  privilege and wealth, by stating that "everyone" should be doing things that not everyone can actually do, is at least counterproductive, and may even perpetuate the very systems we claim to be fighting.

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