We have a hunger epidemic in North Carolina, and it’s getting worse.
North Carolina is the ninth-hungriest state in the nation, with 16.2 percent of residents receiving some amount of federal assistance to buy food in the form of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
One in eight individuals in the state were food insecure last year — food insecurity is defined as not having reliable access to your next meal. According to the North Carolina Department of Housing and Human Services, 56 percent of public-school children are eligible for free or reduced lunch, and one in five children face hunger on a daily basis.
The North Carolina General Assembly’s Committee on Food Desert Zones reported over 350 food deserts in the state in 2014. These numbers are significantly larger in 2018. According to the NC Action Research Center, 18 percent of elderly individuals struggle with hunger.
In short, all kinds of people in North Carolina — children, adults and seniors — face food insecurity and hunger.
One of many effects of hunger is increased health care costs. In North Carolina, one of the states that didn’t expand Medicaid under the Affordable Health Care Act, health care costs have increased by upward of 300 percent as a result of malnutrition, food insecurity, hunger and poverty.
According to NC Policy Watch, the food hardship rates reflect state policies that fail to ensure all North Carolinians can access basic human needs. In a recent report, the organization argued that state leaders need to take steps to ensure that all residents don’t have to make the choice between going hungry and paying for other basic needs. NC Policy Watch proposed policies such as:
- Increasing full time employment for well-paying jobs;
- Expanding childcare and work supports for working parents;
- Increasing the minimum wage; and
- Strengthening nutrition programs, among other proactive policies to lift struggling households
But we can’t put much hope and trust in North Carolina’s state leaders. We must start on a local level.
One of the largest obstacles to food in Winston-Salem and surrounding towns is transportation. The Winston-Salem City Council recently decided to cut already limited bus routes and raise the rate of Winston TransAID, which assists individuals with disabilities.
Additionally, there are very few bus routes that go from Winston-Salem to Greensboro or High Point (two sister cities of the Triad) on the weekends, except for the expensive Greyhound buses. Working-class and low-income folks suffer as a result of the lack of transportation and food access from other areas.
At one food dispensary of the largest nonprofit food organization, Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest NC, a group of undocumented women were turned away and not given food because they didn’t have the “right” housing documentation.
A health care worker informed me that this occurs often with “well-meaning” nonprofit food banks in Western North Carolina. She stated that what she’s dealing with can be summed up in one word: poverty.
Liberal nonprofit organizations often lack an understanding of the intersections of race, sexual orientation and citizen status in connection with hunger and poverty. Moreover, when these issues are addressed, many of these nonprofits neither express interest nor political will in connecting the intersections of identities with the everyday struggles of working people under capitalism.
My experience of food insecurity over the past year has taught me the importance of centering environmental racism and people of color, while acknowledging the downplaying and mitigating of white hunger and poverty.
In the city of Winston-Salem, the majority of the food deserts are in Black and Brown neighborhoods on the North and East Sides. More than half of individuals live over a mile from access to fresh, affordable food, and individuals who reside in surrounding rural areas live between seven and eight miles from fresh, affordable food.
Community efforts by the SHARE Collective, Food Not Bombs and Forsyth Foodworks strive to educate, illuminate the local food crisis and even provide options, albeit limited, for low-income individuals.
Thirty-six community gardens in the city provide food, while small farm collectives like Brightheart Farm, represent an effort to provide fresh, affordable food. Local farming efforts to connect struggles must be uplifted, especially ones that build solidarity across race, sex, gender and geographical lines.
Small farmers perform about 80 percent of farm labor in North Carolina. Almost 20 percent are Black. Vern’s Farm Market, headed by Vern Switzer, a Black farmer in Rural Hall, 11 miles north of Winston-Salem, underscores the importance of reparations for Black farmers — a necessary demand that has yet to be met.
Instead, we’re witnessing a gentrification of East Winston directly related to food production and sustenance. For instance, instead of a cooperative market and restaurant, city officials and so-called leaders decided to allow a fast-food chain in East Winston. This exemplifies the backward priorities of the city officials and capitalists of Winston-Salem.
Additionally, what’s missing from the local and statewide conversation is the explicit indictment of capitalism as it relates to environmental racism. When Duke Energy dumped coal ash waste into the Dan River in 2014 and during the recent tornadoes and Hurricane Florence, low-income neighborhoods (primarily Black and Brown areas) bore the most devastating consequences of disaster capitalism, hunger and poverty.
This suffering continues in the form of multiple health disparities. Lastly, what is lacking is resources and action. We need more money and resources for local efforts to create sustainable food models across neighborhoods.
Karl Marx made the case that the entire system — not just the system of distribution, but also the system of production — would need to be revolutionized once it was taken in hand by the associated producers.”
Capitalism, as Marx expressed, is the opposite of an ecologically self-sufficient system. As Elizabeth Terzakis wrote in the International Socialist Review:
Because of the appropriation of land through its enclosure and conversion to private property, most humans no longer have a direct relationship to the means of subsistence, with the result that we experience a four-fold alienation: (1) we are alienated from the products of our labor — that is, they do not contribute directly to the satisfaction of our needs; (2) we are alienated from the labor process itself, and since labor is one of the things that makes us distinctly human, we are thus alienated from ourselves, what Marx called our human species-being; (3) we are alienated from each other, because rather than engaging in a communal project to satisfy our needs as human beings, we are forced into competition with each other to secure access to the means of production from capitalists and labor for their profit, and because we are by nature social, we are thus once again alienated from ourselves; and (4) we are alienated from nature — our inorganic body. So the alienation of humans from their labor is, according to Marx, inseparable from the alienation of human beings from nature — what Marx called the metabolic rift.
John Bellamy Foster explains the “metabolic rift” in the article “Marx as a Food Theorist”:
Marx’s analysis of the new regime of food production in mid-nineteenth century industrial Britain therefore takes us in a full dialectical circle. An examination of the conditions involved in the consumption of food nutrients leads to the question of the whole regime of industrial-capitalist food production, and from there to the issue of the soil and capitalism’s alienated social metabolism.
In Marx’s own words: “Capitalist production…only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth — the soil and the worker.”
In an Eater article titled “‘Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat’ Is Marxist Fantasy Porn,”Malcolm Harris asks: “What would it look like not to see the world as natural ‘resources’ to ‘exploit,’ but as our external body? What would it mean to reconcile our alienation from our labor and from the soil as well?”
To end all forms of hunger and food insecurity, we must abolish the international disease of capitalism and replace it with a sustainable socialist society.
In a season where people gather to share food, it’s imperative that we emphasize solidarity and sharing — a multifaceted circle of giving and receiving that connects us with the land, each other and the food that sustains us.