The Season of Our Discontent: Poverty and Hunger in America

I always view November as the darkest month. It’s not just that the days are shorter and the nights are longer, but it’s the time of year when the nation’s stark contrast between abundance and scarcity becomes most apparent. Yes, it’s the time of the harvest and celebration that we typically mark with our Thanksgiving bacchanal, but it’s also a time when we are reminded of how little progress we’ve made in ending hunger in America.

November is when the U.S. Department of Agriculture announces the latest rates of domestic food insecurity and hunger (labeled by the department’s experts as “very low food security”). In 2007, the numbers stood at 12.1 percent of all Americans, about 36 million of our brothers and sisters. On November 16, the department announced that 49 million Americans were now food insecure, the highest figure since the department started measuring domestic hunger in 1997. It was a figure so appalling that it even shocked long-time anti-hunger advocates.

The revelation that there are that many hungry Americans will no doubt prompt government agencies to tout the safety net virtues of the food stamp program and the Department of Agriculture’s other 14 food assistance programs. Now giving more than 36 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 keep people from starving, but a failure when it comes to addressing the root causes of food insecurity, namely poverty.

As grim as these statistics are, they are sure to 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 dollars—the latter to complete yet another expansion of their already humongous warehouses.

Having devoted 35 years of my professional life to community food programs designed to end hunger—including developing a food bank and advocating for more food stamp spending—I have come to believe that 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 the lines, 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 people find their democratic voice, build confidence and wealth, or otherwise take a stand against their 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 eventually redirected his hustler’s energy to lead the charge for what is now a burgeoning 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.

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 easily be mistaken for the archetypal welfare mom. But instead of taking canned food from the food bank, she got involved with a program called The Happy Kitchen, run by the nonprofit Sustainable Food Center. Through this peer-led food education program, she learned how to use herbs to flavor her food instead of fat, as well as 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 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 the right-wing, up-by-the-bootstraps dogma that formed 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.” In contrast, Maurice, Dorothy, and Cynthia have been given the support and assistance they need to resolve their dilemmas in a lasting way.
Feeding the country’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 community activist and former White House adviser Van Jones once said, “We are servicing poor communities to death.”

When faced with the annual Thanksgiving appeal and the knowledge that suffering is so rampant, a donation to the food bank becomes the obvious and immediate choice. But when analysis and compassion merge, different choices emerge. As citizens of communities, let’s look for programs like City Fresh in Cleveland, the Sustainable Food Center in Austin, or the Food Policy Council in Boulder to support. Instead of enabling the continuation of poverty, they empower people to help themselves.

As citizens of a country whose gap between rich and poor exceeds that of most developed nations, let’s hold our government accountable for its failure to address our gross economic inequalities. Remember, food stamps only manage poverty, they don’t end it. And as consumers of products and services, let’s also hold our low-wage corporations accountable. Franklin Delano Roosevelt took no prisoners with his warning that, “No business which depends on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country … by living wages I mean the wages of a decent living.”

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.