The Food Issues Book Club: How Hungry is America, Chapter 4

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 4: The Tattered (But Still Existing) Federal Hunger Safety Net


Neither Reagan nor those who followed him managed to totally dismantle the food safety net.  It still exists as a lifeline to millions of Americans, lynchpinned by the SNAP program (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program, the name given to Food Stamps in 2008).  While stigma swirls around food stamps, the fact is that most benefits go to people unable to work.  For example, in 2005 89% of benefits went to households with underage, elderly, or disabled residents.  "Lazy bums indeed!"  Additionally, 61% of recipients stay on the program for a year or less.

Nevertheless, "food stamp benefits are too small, go to too few people, are too hard to get, and are too hard to keep getting, and this is permitted because they are for poor people."

The food stamp program has low enrollment of eligible recipients for a number of reasons.  Applications must be made in person - a hardship for working parents.  Applicants must supply an extraordinary number of documents and answer hundreds of questions to prove their eligibility, and must do so every few months to keep them.  In four states digital fingerprinting is required, at great expense to the state and to little result of detecting potential fraud.  And for all their trouble, many receive only the minimum benefit of literally a few dollars a week.

Kids who have eaten learn better than kids who are hungry.  But stigma surrounds the free and reduced price breakfast and lunch programs.  Many students in the program are issued a different colored lunch ticket or even have to stand in a different line, making them a target for bullying.  The breakfast program is far less available and has much lower participation, in no small part because "everyone knows that only the really poor kids go to the cafeteria to eat breakfast."

"With more funds and effort, the nutritional safety net could operate at full potential and end hunger in America entirely."


I was on food stamps once, after Hurricane Katrina.  I had made my way to New York City, and they'd set up a relief center down near City Hall where all of the federal and private aid groups were gathered in one place.  Going through the process was excruciating and took many hours - and by all accounts was about a thousand times easier than the normal process.

Getting food stamps is complicated enough, but to make matters worse there are many misconceptions that have a chilling effect on potential applicants.  Unfortunately, many people who work in aid offices don't even know what the qualifications are.  For instance, homeless people are eligible but are told they can't apply without a permanent mailing address.

This may be part of why so many people deemed eligible for aid based on income aren't actually getting it.  A report issued by the City of New Orleans in 2013 detailed that in 18 New Orleans neighborhoods, at least 20% of the income-based aid-eligible population was not receiving aid.  In one neighborhood - the Iberville housing project - over 74% of residents who were eligible for aid were not getting it.  But why?  Is it really all about bureaucratic red tape and confusion?

There's another piece of this puzzle not addressed by Berg.  In several states (the exact number of which seems to vary by year), anyone convicted of a drug felony is permanently barred from food aid.  Numerous other states have so-called modified bans, requiring convicted drug felons to adhere to drug testing or other such measures for varying lengths of time after release.  Others don't allow aid to be received for between six months and two years after a sentence is completed.  Louisiana is among these, denying aid to people reentering life from prison for the first year out.

Perhaps you're thinking, "why should we give food aid to convicted drug felons?"  So I'll give you several things to consider.  1) Drug arrests and felony convictions overwhelmingly affect the black community - and not because black people are more involved in drugs.  2) Re-entry is extremely difficult and already has an enormous amount of associated stigma that leads to difficulties finding employment and housing.  3) Leaving people stigmatized and without resources does not, in fact, help them to once again become productive members of society.

It's worthwhile to note at this point that the 18 neighborhoods noted above have almost entirely black residents.  Another fun fact: Orleans Parish Prison's inmates are over 85% black and just over 12% white.  Black inmates have an average stay of 167 days; white inmates of 92 days.  Louisiana's population is 32.4% black, yet black people make up 67.8% of its prisoners statewide.  I'M JUST SAYING.

There's more, SO much more to indicate the extreme disparate racial treatment that runs rampant in the criminal justice system, but much has been written on the subject so I won't go there.  Do I really think that all of this is a conspiracy to make sure that black people in the South are unfairly targeted and made unable to receive aid, and thus forced to remain poor and without fully realized rights?  That's a solid maybe.  (Yes, I am well aware that NOT all black people in the South fit this description - I'm talking about trends here, not each individual.)  What I do believe, without any doubt, is that if we want people who've served time in jail to be able to rejoin their communities, ever, then we must make it possible and practical for them to do so.

I got hyperfocused on race there for a minute.  I'm going to guess that's because here in New Orleans, race and economic class are close to the same thing.  All of the affluent neighborhoods are almost completely white.  All of the notoriously "bad" neighborhoods are almost completely black.  Desegregation was forced upon this city nearly fifty years ago, and yet things don't look remarkably different than they did in the 1960s as far as racial distribution... except for some obvious remnants of white flight.  And there are reasons for that, and we need to talk about them.  Yes, institutional racism is in fact still "a thing."  And it is demonstrated in the food environments of New Orleans in no uncertain terms.

1 comment:

  1. As methods of food production become more efficient and use less resources, this increased amount of food now has to be distributed more effectively.


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