By Mark Winne
I’m worried about the coming month. Not because I have any dark premonition, but because this is the time when we slip into that autumnal haze marked by pumpkins, turkeys and cornucopias.
These harvest-time icons signal the arrival of World Food Day (Oct. 16), the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual hunger and food insecurity report (early November), and of course our Thanksgiving bacchanal (Nov. 26). Taken as singular moments in time, these events appear celebratory or simply benign. Looked at over the course of 80 years, however, they remind us of our failure to end hunger because of our inability to address its cause, namely poverty.
On World Food Day, hunger, which now inflicts its wrath on 1 billion human beings, will again be decried by global institutions for the villain it is. Fresh vows to eliminate this scourge with more money (seldom fulfilled) and the latest agricultural technology (courtesy of Monsanto) will be placed on the world’s altar.
As this painful recession continues, the USDA will probably announce that America’s levels of food insecurity and hunger (measured as “very low food security” by USDA) are at an all-time high. In 2007, the numbers were at 12.1 percent of all Americans, about 36 million people. We can safely anticipate that the new figures will be higher and most likely mirror the growth in the U.S. poverty rate, now at a 10-year high of 13.2 percent.
These figures will prompt government agencies to tout the safety net virtues of the food stamp program. Now giving more than 35 million Americans (yes, also a record) a not terribly generous $1.30 per meal, food stamps will again be revealed for what they are and are not: a pretty good way to manage poverty but by no means a way to end it.
All of this, however, will be trumped by the Thanksgiving symphony orchestrated by the nation’s 205 private food banks. Their mailed, emailed, radioed and televised pleas for assistance will tell us that demand is up, the shelves are bare, and their warehouses are too small. They need turkeys, cans and bucks, the latter to complete yet another expansion of their already humongous warehouses.
Having devoted 35 years of my professional life to community-based food programs, including the development of a food bank and advocacy for more food stamp spending, I have come to believe that the continuous growth in these efforts are dramatic and expensive failures. Not only do they not end hunger, they operate in illogical defiance of the principles of American individualism and self-reliance.
As if asking the victims of our failed national and global food systems to accept their fate — to be poor, to be hungry — isn’t enough, we also ask them to forgo their innate human desire to challenge that fate. “Don’t worry,” say the agencies and the charities, “Do as we say; fill out the forms, stand in line, and you shall be fed.”
Whatever their virtues — these programs do prevent food riots — they do not lift their clients out of poverty. Nor do they help them find their democratic voice, build confidence and wealth, or otherwise erase the stigma of poverty. Instead, most food programs implicitly encourage people “to shun the rugged battle of fate,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson admonished us not to do 150 years ago.
When I want to imagine a different path, I think of Maurice Small, a middle-aged African-American who grew up in Cleveland’s housing projects. For a while he succumbed to the urban hustler’s life but grew tired of seeing the same vacant lots as an adult that he saw as a kid. He would eventually redirect his hustler’s energy to lead the charge for what is now a bourgeoning urban agriculture movement. With assistance from city hall, the Cleveland-Cuyahoga Food Policy Council, the nonprofit City Fresh, Oberlin College, Case Western University and the Cleveland Clinic, Small has mobilized people and land to produce more than $2 million of food annually. As he put it himself, “I’m a kid from the projects who’s now selling organic vegetables to white-tablecloth restaurants.”
I also think of Dorothy Washington who lives in the housing projects of Austin, Texas. A 35-year-old African-American who is overweight and has five children, Washington could be mistaken for the archetypical welfare mom. But instead of taking canned food from the food bank, she got involved with a program called The Happy Kitchen that is run by the nonprofit Sustainable Food Center. Through this peer-led food education program, she learned how use herbs to flavor her food instead of fat and how to interest her children in vegetables. Washington and her children have lost weight. She has more confidence in herself and is making a greater commitment to serving her community. About her new diet she notes, wryly, “God didn’t make nachos.”
And then there’s Cynthia Torres, a second-generation Mexican-American who grew up in South Texas. She co-founded the Boulder County Food and Agriculture Policy Council to empower that community in Colorado to make sustainably produced food available to all. Under her leadership the council recently stopped a plan to take over thousands of acres of publicly owned farm land for genetically modified sugar beets. Monsanto and other biotech seed companies had forced sugar beet growers into a box by producing only genetically modified seed. Torres and the community found their voice — the voice of democracy — and have temporarily defeated the attempt. They are now working with farmers and county officials to promote less risky and more sustainable agricultural practices on public land.
These are not poster children for right-wing, up-by-the-bootstraps dogma. To the contrary, that was the philosophical foundation for today’s food assistance programs. “We’ll give them enough food so they don’t starve,” the thinking went, “but we won’t help them out of poverty. That’s their job.” Maurice, Dorothy and Cynthia have been given the support and assistance they need to resolve their dilemmas and without shunning “the rugged battle of fate.”
Feeding America’s hungry and impoverished is now close to a $100-billion-a-year enterprise. For the most part, these efforts do not empower their recipients, and in some cases they infantilize them. As the community activist and former White House adviser Van Jones once said, “We are servicing poor communities to death.”
As our common day of grace approaches, and as we learn more about the dire circumstances of those left out of the American dream, let’s ponder again the ways we might end hunger by ending poverty, and the ways that the voiceless among us can be heard.