Mark's Food Policy Blog

Finding Solutions to Today's Food System Challenges

Books that Sow the Seeds of Change

Markwinne.com’s rigid subject selection criteria only allow reviews of books that include a substantial contribution by me or mention my name a minimum of five times. In this age of narcissism, the reasons should be obvious: these may very well be the only books worth reading, plus reviewing them allows me to dispense with any pretense of objectivity.

As riddled with ethical concerns as these policies may be, I’ve chosen to adhere to their self-serving line of reasoning in the interest of presenting two food books that have nothing in common, other than me of course. The first is Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups by Andy Fisher. The second book is Seasoned with Gratitude by Kathryn Lafond.

After my second reading of Big Hunger (MIT Press, 2017), it dawned on me that if Andy Fisher hadn’t written this book someone else would have to. There’s been tension in the U.S. food movement for far too long around the subject of collusion between major anti-hunger sectors and the food industry for someone not to call the question. That Fisher has done so with a scrupulously well-researched book that includes tales that will make your hair stand on end is a credit to his scholarship and the simple necessity that the truth be told.

Depending on its context, collusion may only be a minor sin, as in the collusion between my younger brother and me to deceive our mother into thinking we’d eaten our vegetables. Collusion’s more elevated cousin, collaboration, is often necessary to achieve some goal that two or more partners could never achieve alone. And if good ends must sometimes be reached by traveling down dark corridors, then the pure among us may have to occasionally accept low transparency and the company of unsavory partners.

But when the goal that collusion is purportedly designed to achieve never materializes, then one has to ask what’s going on. If, as Fisher points out, U.S. food insecurity has increased since the turn of this century from 10.5 percent to 12.6 percent today, that obesity and diabetes levels are at all-time highs, that the economies of many parts of the nation are still in the toilet, then even the non-Republicans among us must raise questions about the direction of food banking and SNAP, supposedly our two strongest hunger fighting tools.

There’s more than enough shock and awe about what Fisher refers to as the “anti-hunger industrial complex” to keep readers uttering strings of “WTF!” Annual salaries for food bank CEOs may range from between $200,000 to $400,000. Using a form of research that would leave the most-healthy among us cross-eyed and crazy, Fisher found that 25 percent of the board members of food banks come from the ranks of Fortune 1000 corporations or from privately owned companies of similar size. And the story about the confrontation between some members of the Harvard School of Public Health and the Food Research Action Center (“FRAC” – the nation’s primary anti-hunger advocate) over SNAP nutrition issues is by itself worth the price of the book.

The cozy relationship between some of the nation’s anti-hunger leaders and corporations, whose labor practices are one cause of American hunger, is certainly a big part of this nation’s soap opera. But Fisher’s larger purpose is not to tell titillating tales of who is sleeping with whom. As a long-time food justice advocate (Fisher was a co-founder and executive director of the Community Food Security Coalition), he, like a growing number of food system activists and leaders in North America, have a different vision for how people should be fed.

Quite simply, Big Hunger puts forward the proposition that people should be able to feed themselves with adequate wages and only limited emergency assistance from food banks and supplemental nutrition sources. This would be an entirely reasonable expectation if it not was for the fact that the leading anti-hunger forces have lost their edge – if indeed they ever had it – dulled by their growing dependence on corporations who keep wages and other compensation, including health insurance, as low as possible.

Fisher relates findings from the House Committee on Education and Workforce that estimate the annual cost to the U.S. taxpayer for Walmart’s low wages as $6.2 billion in public benefits such as SNAP and Medicaid. But rather than address this externalization of employer costs as a grave injustice, anti-hunger groups, especially food banks, stand in line like lap dogs for the $2 billion in “donations” that Walmart dishes out. Once again, corporate America has bamboozled us by swilling about in the public trough while still smelling like roses because of their so-called charity.

If there is a flaw in Fisher’s book it’s in his timing. Unlike mean-spirited politicians who simply see the world of federal food assistance programs as worthy of nothing but the axe, Fisher and the innovative anti-hunger programs that he highlights want reform. SNAP should be as much about promoting healthy eating and local economic development as it is about providing an economic safety net. Feeding America and FRAC should work with labor unions and other groups who are struggling for better incomes for food and farm workers. But neither Republicans nor Democrats have the political courage or the policy insights to turn the $100 billion in federal food assistance into a powerful force for health and economic empowerment. The anti-hunger lobby’s only strategy is a tenacious defense of the status quo, and they will no doubt unfairly criticize Fisher for playing into the Republican Congress’ hands.

I was reading Big Hunger in a restaurant recently, scribbling notes like mad in the margins, when my waiter saw the book cover and asked me about it. I gave him my best 30-second elevator speech as he scanned the inside flap and back cover’s endorsements. Writing down the title and author on a cocktail napkin, he said, “sounds like something we need to hear more about.” He’s right.

Seasoned with Gratitude

The best part of food movement debates is that one can retreat from dark discussions of hunger into the effulgent light of delicious food. Rather than viewing this as some kind of cop out, I see it as a blending of one’s responsibility for addressing the world’s challenges and our personal need to show gratitude for our food. Kathryn Lafond’s lovely addition to our cook book shelves, Seasoned with Gratitude (Greater Nourishment Publishing, 2017), takes a novel approach to the world of recipes by placing blessings, graces, and bowed heads at the center of our plate.

Deliciously free of sanctimony, Seasoned with Gratitude reminds us that the devotional pause before digging in deepens our empathy for the plight of others and the productions of the earth. The act of planting seeds, after all, often begins with one’s knees on the ground, and a prayerful gesture of gratitude before a meal places us symbolically on our knees with those who produced our food.

From Seasoned with Gratitude we hear the words of the Shawnee Chief, Tecumseh who asks us to respect nature’s gifts: “When you rise in the morning, give thanks for the light, for your strength. Give thanks for your food and for the living.”

I will acknowledge, of course, that my only qualifications for reviewing a cookbook (aside from the fact that I contributed this book’s forward) is the ease with which I can follow the recipes and the ensuing edibility of my creation. In both cases, I succeeded admirably with my small test sample. Lafond’s writing is clear, her orientation is local and sustainable, and the ingredients are easily obtainable (no need to parachute into the jungles of Borneo to stalk the rare wee-jee berry for that upcoming dinner party). A few short chapters that precede the blessings and recipes (250 in all) offer a nice tutorial on cooking, the stocking of one’s kitchen, and the sourcing of food. All in all, Seasoned with Gratitude is a holistic cookbook flavored with just the right amount of holiness.

How we share the treasures of the Lord crosses my mind as a unifying theme for these two seemingly disparate books. Big Hunger reminds us that the lessons we learned about sharing in kindergarten are often forgotten by the time we became adults, otherwise hunger and poor nutrition in the most prosperous nation on earth would be nothing more than footnotes in American history books. Likewise, the practice of offering up thanks for our food not only sends a stirring drumbeat through our souls, but acknowledges a collective responsibility to share our blessings with others.

It seems as if the Franklin Delano Roosevelt grace from Seasoned with Gratitude sums up our current dilemma best: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much. It is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

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