High Food Prices – Just Another Bad Day in the Food Line

Mark Winne

The current spate of alarming farm and food stories – drought, rising food prices and shortages – has riveted our attention on the precarious state of our food system. As a nation that has become accustomed, at least for the past generation or two, to an abundant supply of affordable food, the daily accounts of everything from food riots to soaring egg prices have brought us up short.

For some, these events may mean that those weekly strolls down the tastefully lit aisles of Whole Foods now become monthly. For those who have naturally spurned such discount pariahs as Wal-Mart, second thoughts may be in order.

But for another class of American shoppers, rising food prices, whether organic or conventional, is just another bump in the road on an already trying journey. I’m speaking of low-income families, and increasingly low-to-middle income families who now find themselves treading closer to the lower end of the income spectrum.

Use to standing in line at county food stamp offices or the neighborhood food pantry, the nation’s poor seem to know how to tough it out when times get hard. Like a “last in, first out” inventory system, the poor are the last in line on those rare occasions when there is an equitable distribution of abundance, but always the first to get cut when scarcity sets in.

Almost 35 million Americans – 11.3 percent of the population – were classified as food insecure or very food insecure (a term that used to mean “hunger”) by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2006. Not coincidentally, this is almost the same number of Americans who live at or below the nation’s official poverty level (the food insecurity rate is likely to increase when tallied again this fall). When those folks are combined with 57 million Americans who are considered near-poor, we have nearly one-third of a nation already struggling to put food on the table.

What is perhaps most striking about the 11.3 percent figure is that it is exactly the same as when USDA first measured food insecurity and hunger in 1996. In spite of current federal nutrition assistance expenditures (e.g. food stamps, school lunch) approaching $60 billion a year and a private system of 50,000 emergency food sites such as food pantries, we as a nation have made little progress over more than 10 years in reducing food insecurity.

The twin jolts of a declining economy and food/energy inflation have driven record numbers of people (28 million) into the food stamp program, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still clinging precariously to overcrowded lifeboats. On average, food stamps provide an individual with barely enough to live on – about $1.04 per meal (this number will increase in proportion to inflation, but not until October). Similarly, school meal directors are scrambling like never before to feed millions of children who are eligible for federally funded child nutrition programs.

Some anti-hunger advocates have estimated that a fifty percent increase in the food stamp program – about $18 billion per year, or one to two months of the cost of waging the Iraq War, depending on your sources – would largely eliminate food insecurity. But as we all know, the President and Congress are not willing to realign the nation’s priorities.

What must be understood here is that food insecurity has become a way of life for far too many Americans. The current economic crisis and soaring food prices that are now stinging the middle and upper classes are just another slap in the face to the poor, though perhaps a gut punch to the near-poor now taking their place in food lines for the first time.

Food insecurity has cast a dark shadow across our national landscape for decades, primarily because we cannot bring ourselves to confront its root cause, poverty. Our elaborate and not inexpensive network of private and public food programs make a noble effort to mitigate the worst aspects of poverty, namely hunger, but even on their best days, they only succeed in managing poverty, never ending it.

But perhaps it is asking too much of both the public and charitable sectors to fix a problem that our low-wage economy is largely responsible for. It was Henry Ford, who as legend has it, paid his workers enough so that they could buy the cars they built. Today’s U.S. companies don’t even pay their workers enough to feed themselves.

Until our public policies once again take on the task of ending poverty, and private industry is forced or shamed into paying a living wage to all its workers, hunger and food insecurity will be business as usual for tens of millions of Americans.

The recent flare ups in our stressed food system may remind us how vulnerable we all are to economic and natural forces, but for the poor and those now joining their ranks, it’s just another bad day in the food line.

Mark Winne is the author of Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty (Beacon Press).