2.04.2015

The Food Issues Book Club: How Hungry is America, Chapters 2 and 3

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 2: How Hunger Costs All of Us ~and~ Chapter 3: Why Brother (and Sister) Still Can't Spare a Dime

Summary:

TL;DR version: Despite arguments that aid would create dependence on handouts, federal food aid was developed and was quite successful in reducing hunger in the 1970s.  Reagan undid much of the good that had been done, and our food safety net - while still extant - is not adequate.

It behooves us all to care about hunger, because it's easy enough for any of us to wind up hungry (aka with "very low food security").  Additionally, hunger strains the economy both due to the associated healthcare costs, and because poor hungry people are not purchasing goods and services.  Hunger causes infants with low birth weights, youth and adolescents who can't concentrate in school, and adults who perform poorly on the job.  All age groups are more prone to depression when hungry.  Solving hunger is key to eradicating poverty.

We waste literal tons of food.
The prevalence of hunger has fluctuated in the US since it was first noted as a social problem during the Industrial Revolution.  After almost being eradicated in the 1970s, hunger saw a resurgence in the 1980s and has stayed with us since.  Hunger in the US has never been caused by a lack of food, but rather the lack of means to pay for it.

We unfortunately adopted British attitudes about the poor and needy, "blaming the poor for their poverty."  As far back as 1910 we heard the same arguments against, for instance, universal free school lunches as we do today: that help would "weaken parental responsibility" and cause dependence.  But fingerpointing does nothing to solve the short- or long-term problems caused by hunger.  Immediate stopgaps will be necessary until all people have access to adequate education and a living wage.

In 1932 hungry unemployed people
marched to Washington, DC
In the depths of the Great Depression, when people were literally starving to death, the government rejected the idea that excess food - which they owned in abundance and would be wasted otherwise - should be bought and distributed by the government to the unemployed.Instead the ethic of "personal responsibility" was touted, even while the same administration provided aid to European countries recovering from the Great War (World War I).  "Wealthy people who dominated the boards of charities complained that providing food aid would promote dependency and that private charity was more efficient than government aid."  Even Franklin D. Roosevelt, who ultimately did provide food and much more to citizens in need, first rejected the notion.

The National School Lunch Program was created after World War II recruits arrived at boot camp weak and undernourished.  John F. Kennedy later began the Food Stamps program in earnest, and Lyndon B. Johnson strengthened it.  In the late 1960s a team of doctors studying nutrition in the Mississippi Delta region found "Third World-style" malnutrition running rampant.  They also learned that tenants were frequently not allowed to grow their own food, even when it would have been easy for landlords to allow it.  A 1968 report concluded, "we have been lulled into the comforting belief that at least the extremes of privation had been eliminated in the process of becoming the world's wealthiest nation."

In the South particularly, where many of the poor and hungry were black, reticence or outright refusal to provide food aid was often racially fueled.  Food aid was even cut off to civil rights activists.  Doctors who witnessed the clear racially drawn class lines and the prevalence of black children dying of malnutrition were decried and threatened when they publicly noted the treatment of blacks; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., however, thanked them.  This despite the fact that most of the country's hungry are now and always have been white. 

A groundbreaking television report in 1968
Media coverage and activism forced government to acknowledge the hunger issue.  President Nixon, though initially a hunger denier, requested that congress make food stamps free (until then, a portion had to be paid for by the recipient) and created a Food and Nutrition Service within the USDA.  The WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program was created shortly thereafter.  Between 1969 and 1979, the US drastically reduced its hunger problems through these programs.  And then, in 1981, an actor named Ronald Reagan became president.

Reagan "slashed funding for education, health, support services for the mentally ill, and housing."  he of course also cut back on all food aid programs.  Hunger and poverty greatly increased in the wake of his policies.  He even attempted to cut the school lunch program, famously attempting to let ketchup be counted as a vegetable.  We have never fully recovered from "Reaganomics."

Discussion:

Thanks for monocropping, Mr. Butz!
This is a loooong chapter so I'll try to keep it short here.  The history of food assistance in the US is complicated, and Berg's account even leaves out some pieces.  (For your edification, check out Earl Butz's "fencerow to fencerow" and "get big or get out" rhetoric.)

It seems SO obvious to me that having desperately hungry people in our community is a detriment to us all, but I suppose that it's not obvious to everyone.  Whether or not a person can empathize with someone in such great need, though, anyone should be able to understand the numbers.  People who are hungry do more poorly in school, and have a more difficult time finding and holding jobs.  Unsurprisingly then, they are more likely to commit crimes.  So why wouldn't someone want to provide assistance?

The conspiracy theorist in me says that those who pull out the tired old lines of "personal responsibility" and "dependence on handouts" actually have no interest in helping the poor, and rather have only an interest in hogging an ever larger slice of the pie for themselves by ensuring that poor people can never be anything but poor people.  Telling people to "get a job," "pull themselves up by the bootstraps," and "stop asking for handouts" is all fine and well in a theoretical sense I suppose.  Everyone has to work in the societal structure we've built.  But when there's no opportunity to get the education necessary to get a job, when many jobs even when worked full-time don't provide a living wage, and when the unemployed outnumber job openings three to one, it's nothing more than senseless rhetoric and poor-shaming.

Perhaps the government could try directly creating jobs instead of giving corporations tax breaks just hoping that they'll take care of it.  We could even use the newfound labor force to address the crumblig infrastructure problem being faced by the entire country.  Hmm... has this idea been tried before?  To great success?  Nah, I must be imagining things... like all the structures in New Orleans built by the WPA.

A brief note about the stigma of reduced meals at school and food stamps at the grocery store: kids can be incomprehensibly judgmental and mean, and not all adults grow out of the habit.  Bizarrely, I really hope that in this once instance New Orleans takes a cue from Baton Rouge Parish public schools.

Finally: OMG THE SOUTH IS RACIST?  Who knew?

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