Thursday, August 7, 2014

The New Face of Hunger

by Sarah Janes Ugoretz

This week, we return to our discussion of National Geographic’s “Future of Food” series. In the most recent article, “The New Face of Hunger,” Tracie McMillan—author and Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University—examines the shifting demographics of poverty in the United States. She begins with a powerful statistic: today, one out of every six people living in the United States does not have enough food to eat. What does this mean, exactly? To be “hungry” or “food insecure” means that a person or family, at some point over the course of the last year, did not have enough food to eat. According to McMillan, many who experience hunger today “face not a total absence of food but the gnawing fear that the next meal can’t be counted on.”

Throughout this article, McMillan highlights the various forms poverty takes in our country today, challenging readers to confront their preconceived notions of what poverty “looks” like, of where poverty exists. Hunger is found not only in pockets in bustling inner cities—it persists in suburbs and in rural towns, as well as in urban centers. Amongst the poor, you’ll encounter a wide array of individuals—retired schoolteachers, farmhands, undocumented immigrant families or recent college graduates. Yet unlike the images of hunger captured during the Great Depression, the faces and material possessions of today’s poor may not so easily betray their lower socio-economic status. Vehicles, furniture, and electronics bought under installment plans and clothes found at rummage sales make it possible for families to maintain the appearance of a middle-class existence. Yet the picture McMillan paints is one of families living on the edge—not yet destitute, but only one unexpected bill or illness away from even harder times. In many cases, “pocketing food from work and skipping meals to make food stretch are so common that such practices barely register as a way of coping with hunger and are simply a way of life.”

Cuts in the amount of five billion dollars to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the fall of 2013 very likely exacerbated the effects of poverty for many families over the last year. (SNAP, the successor of the Food Stamp Program, is a federally funded program that provides low- and no-income persons and families with food-purchasing assistance.) As families’ SNAP benefits decline, household budgets become even more constricted. McMillan reports that in 2013, average monthly SNAP benefits amounted to $133.07 per person. Broken down, this amounts to less than $1.50 per meal. At this point, the paradox of poverty in the U.S. becomes ever more visible, as households tend to purchase inexpensive processed foods that are filling but not nutritious—eating habits which may ultimately contribute to such maladies as obesity, diabetes and heart disease. “For many of the hungry in America, the extra pounds that result from a poor diet are collateral damage—an unintended side effect of hunger itself,” McMillan explains.

Families who spoke with McMillan seemed to share a similar experience. Each month, with the replenishment of their SNAP benefits, they often splurge on fruits and vegetables, knowing that as the days and weeks go by, fresh food will have to be foregone for less expensive processed foods. Typically, by the end of the month, families’ benefits have run dry. It is at this point that they often turn to food pantries, where they are most likely to find non-perishable yet highly processed food items to hold them over until the beginning of the next month.

During the 1980s, a few hundred food pantries and other emergency food provisioning services could be found across the U.S. Today, there are over 50,000. What explains this massive increase in emergency food services? In her book Sweet Charity?: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement, Janet Poppendieck, long-time Professor of Sociology at City University of New York, discusses how food pantries and similar services have taken the place of consistent and targeted public policy aimed at addressing the root causes of poverty. Essentially, food pantries are stepping in to provide a safety net that otherwise may not exist.

Unfortunately business is good for most food pantries these days and our community is no different. When we talk with representatives of the local food pantries we regularly  support, they report that the numbers of families they are serving monthly continues to rise. In an effort to prevent perfectly wholesome produce from going to waste, we donate weekly to our local pantries. Rose, a volunteer at the Living Faith food pantry in Viroqua, comes to our farm every Tuesday afternoon to pack up extra vegetables we may have had from the week before. In 2013, Rose took over 10,000 pounds of produce back to the food pantry in Viroqua where it was distributed to community members. We also support the Wafer food pantry in La Crosse, Wisconsin when we have more than the Viroqua food pantry can distribute. Last year we donated 4,643 pounds of produce to the Wafer food pantry. While these numbers are not negligible, our local food pantries are small in comparison to other areas of the country. The amount of food they distributed from our farm represents such a tiny sliver of the need in this country for access to fresh produce for those who may need support from a local food pantry.

Laurel helps Rose pick up extra produce for the Viroqua Living Faith food pantry. 
Ultimately, McMillan and Poppendieck argue that “the root problem is the lack of jobs that pay wages a family can live on, so food assistance has become the government’s—and society’s—way to supplement low wages.” While families can try to supplement their SNAP benefits and spread their limited incomes by growing, foraging for, and canning fresh foods, doing so requires time, know-how, and other resources that they may not have access to. Fortunately, grassroots efforts aimed at addressing these obstacles have begun to increase. In Madison, one example can be found in FairShare CSA Coalition’s Partner Shares program—a cost-sharing initiative that provides financial assistance to low-income households interested in participating in a CSA program. Meanwhile, a Kickstarter campaign for Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day, a cookbook that Leanne Brown created with SNAP participants in mind, recently set a new Kickstarter record.

In closing, McMillan cautions that the impacts of bottom-up efforts such as these will likely remain limited as long as federal money disproportionately favors commodity crops over “specialty crops”—the term given to fruits and vegetables. McMillan reports that in 2012, the federal government allocated approximately $11 billion to subsidize and insure commodity crops such as corn and soybeans. Meanwhile, $1.6 billion was directed towards fruits and vegetables. What do these policies have to do with SNAP recipients? McMillan points out what you may already know: “[These] priorities are reflected at the grocery store where the price of fresh food has risen steadily while the cost of sugary treats like soda has dropped.” As it is, families are faced with spending more for less if they choose to pursue healthier food options. This simple fact illustrates just how broken our system is.

Read more about the "Future of Food" on National Geographic's food channel.

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