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Joel Berg: How Hungry Is America?

Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, speaks to GRITtv about hunger in the United States, food deserts in the Bronx and new community-based solutions.

2014 711 joel sw(Screengrab via YouTube)GRITtv’s Laura Flanders interviews Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, about hunger in the United States, food deserts in the Bronx and new community-based solutions.

Laura: Hi, I’m Laura Flanders. You think of New York City, and you think of food. The city is known for great restaurants and foodie hangouts. But did you know that New York City is home to some of the nation’s top food deserts, too? To name just one, the largest fresh food wholesale market in the United States is in Hunt’s Point, in the Bronx. Yet there are no supermarkets to be found in the surrounding neighborhoods and good, fresh produce is hard to come by for local residents. Our next guest is hoping to make a dent in that problem with a community-supported agriculture project that puts low and middle-income residents at the center of its plan. It is designed by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, headed up by Joel Berg. Joel joins me now. He is also the author of All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America? Joel, welcome to GRITtv!

Joel: Thank you

Glad to have you. So Joel, let’s start with the big picture; how hungry is America?

America has 49 million residents living in homes that can’t afford enough food. Nearly 17 million American children, while they’re not starving to death in the way you might see in Somalia, North Korea or Honduras, they’re choosing between food and rent, choosing between food and medicine. We have the highest level of food insecurity and hunger out of any Western, industrialized democracy. So America is quite hungry.

And we are supposed to be one of the richest countries in the world.

We are the richest country in the history of the world in aggregate. But if you average my salary and Bill Gates, I’m a billionaire, so averages don’t mean everything.

What is the picture in New York City?

In New York City there are 1.4 million people living in households that can’t afford enough food with half a million American children just here in New York City. This is the city with 53 billionaires, so many billionaires they don’t all fit on the Forbes 400 List. They’re combined net worth is over $180 billion, and yet one in five of our children can’t afford enough food.

So how does it happen? How do you end up with a food desert and do you like that term?

Well, it’s not a precise term but it is better than any other term we have. You end up with it because of the stereotypes that food companies have had that believe that low-income people don’t deserve better food, just as a lot of food companies a few decades ago believed people with dark skin should go to a different entrance in a supermarket. So some people say this is all driven by the free market, and I think some of this is driven by stereotypes. So there are large swaths of New York City, large swaths of America – including rural areas – that do not have fresh, affordable, nutritious food available, in particular very little produce.

So talk a little bit about the South Bronx. It is one of the poorest counties in the United States, one of the highest levels of inequality, highest levels of hunger and yet it has the nation’s largest wholesale market, Hunt’s Point, with more fruits and vegetables and meat than any other market in the country and second only to the West Coast I think in terms of fish.

Well, this is a story throughout the world, that where food is produced [it] is not always enjoyed by the people who surround it or where it is distributed. A bunch of years ago I was on vacation in Costa Rica overlooking a huge ship of bananas being shipped, probably to the United States, and the place I was eating had old, moldy bananas. And that’s what you see in the Bronx. There is food in the Hunt’s Point market, let’s distribute it all throughout New York City, but just within an earshot of that you can’t buy the best food that’s available at the market.

And that’s where your CSA fresh food project comes in. CSA, what does that stand for?

CSA stands for community-supported agriculture. What it was designed to do, when the CSA movement started in the last few decades, is help small, regional, organic family farmers stay in business by providing their costs up front and redistributing the risk from the farmers to the consumers. Now that works great for upper-income people but it really doesn’t work for middle-income and particularly low-income people who don’t have the money to pay up front.

Now some people in the states might be familiar with this model; they receive a box every week or so from a local farm, or they know the farmer that relationship is challenged, but it is a pretty upper-middle class thing, I think, isn’t it?

In general, CSAs either ignore low-income people or have them as an afterthought; we designed this project, oh, let’s see if we can get some low-income people involved. We designed these projects with low-income people as the centerpiece.

So how does that look different on the ground?

A, it has a distribution site in the heart of a low-income neighborhood on Grand Concourse in the Bronx. B, it has distribution hours that work for low-income people, most of whom are working, so we distribute into the evening hours, and C, it has prices that are affordable. We subsidize the low-income shares and we accept food stamp SNAP benefits.

So if the market folks were right, what people would be wanting from their farmers is fried food, processed food, high caloric value food. What are they actually asking for?

If you build it, they will come. Our CSAs prove if you make healthier food affordable and physically available, people will line up to eat it, even very low-income people. I must say, this is the stereotype that many upper, white, upper-class liberals share with many conservatives. They just think there is something wrong with low-income people. They are not shopping well enough; they’re not cooking well enough; it’s their own darn fault they’re obese and hungry. Our projects prove that’s just not the case. Low-income people know what’s good for their families. They just can’t afford it and it doesn’t exist in their neighborhoods.

And when they’re providing to the low-income families, can the farmers that you are also helping with this project still make a profit?

The farmers do make a profit. In fact, they make much more of a profit because they sell directly to the consumers instead of having to go through middlemen who take a huge cut. At least one of our farmers in our project, and we have a number of sites around the city, is a first-generation immigrant who came here originally as a farm worker and now runs a farm. So that is a bit of the American Dream success story that has been wiped out for too many new immigrants; there is still a glimmer of hope for some.

So in your picture of how the food economy in a city like New York could be different, what is your dream? What is your vision of what it would look like? Where we would have a strong, local food economy in this place?

It is certainly helpful to get more local and regional food, and I often call it regional food because a lot of the food that New Yorkers buy at farmer’s markets is from the Finger Lakes, is from the upper Hudson River Valley, is from central New Jersey or Pennsylvania, so it’s really more accurately regional.

So a 500-mile radius kind of thing.

That is certainly helpful, but it is also no substitute for ensuring that we have an economy that creates more jobs and ensures that they pay a living wage and ensures that there is an adequate government safety net for those for whom the wages aren’t enough. I happen to like citrus in the winter. None of that is ever going to be local and we have a lot less scurvy in the world because of that. We have to look where local and regional make sense and we certainly support that fervently. We have to understand that modernity has some benefits and as horrible as parts of the international food system are, there is certainly benefits that we have more diversity and more nutritious food year round.

The reason I said that your project makes a dent in the problem is because I’ve read your stuff, and as much as you focus on projects like this, and relieving and alleviating hunger, you also say this is a much bigger problem.

The reason we do projects like this is not only to help the few hundred or few thousand people that might be helped, but to set a policy model to get the federal government on the stick, the state government on the stick, the city government on the stick to have much more widespread programs to make this a reality. Programs like this should be an entitlement as part of the food stamps SNAP program; every one of the 47 million Americans on the SNAP program should have more purchasing power within that program to be able to participate in these CSAs and farmers markets.

So what kinds of things can policymakers do? I was just in Appalachia where the local people in Eastern Kentucky were pushing their legislators to pass or at least implement a law that I think had been passed where people could actually get double their value from their food stamps if they show up to the local food market.

That’s a great program. We have it in New York City. We will certainly be calling on Mayor de Blasio, who is doing a lot of great progressive things on food and poverty issues, to expand that, but it’s really a federal responsibility, ultimately, because they have the money and they can print the bucks and they can make the wealthy across this country pay their fair share to make sure Americans don’t go hungry. There was a small pilot project in the recent farm bill that supports this kind of extra food purchases at farmers markets, but honestly some colleagues of mine in the food movement were really duped. They got a few million through this program and they were jubilant even though billions and billions and billions were cut out of the program for overall food for low-income, hungry Americans. So we can’t be distracted by little pilot projects; we need to keep our eye on the ball that if low-income people get the money through work or through a safety net they’re going to be able to buy healthier food and that will drive a more just food system.

Do I hear raise wages?

Raise wages! We strongly support an increase in the minimum wage even though donors to our group and many other hungry groups are some of the entities that rely on lower wage positions; we strongly believe that if you’re conservative, and you’re against food stamps, you’re against SNAP, against WIC, against all the things we fight for, then surely you should support an increase in the minimum wage that wouldn’t cost the government a penny and would significantly reduce hunger in America.

You presented a plan to Mayor de Blasio of what you would like him to implement in his administration here in New York City. You want to give us a thumbnail of what that is, and is it applicable around the country?

It is applicable around the country, as well as much of the world. It is a call to raise wages, which the mayor is supporting, create jobs, which they mayor is supporting, increase access to nutrition assistance benefits by taking away false discriminatory, racially-tinged barriers against access to tax payer-funded programs, and increasing child nutrition programs. They haven’t done it all yet, but they’ve made a good start. We’re optimistic, although part of our job is to hold them and every other elected official accountable to get it done.

Why are you so passionate about this, Joel?

My question is why isn’t everybody? Forty-nine million of our neighbors live in households that can’t afford enough food. Forget the morality of it, forget what every religious tradition on the planet, every secular tradition on the planet talks about making reduction of poverty and hunger a centerpiece; it’s just in our economic self-interest. No country has remained a vibrant country in the history of the world if it has failed to adequately feed its own people. It’s just survival.

Do you think the world has any idea of this side of the US reality?

I think the people who are experiencing it do. I think much of the rest of the world is shocked when they come and speak to me from the media across the world or delegations of experts who sometimes come and meet with me. They just can’t believe this country that is supposed to have streets paved with gold, that everyone is Donald Trump, they are unbelievably flabbergasted that we have this problem. I tell the story in my book of walking around Bamako, Mali in West Africa, one of the lowest income countries on the planet, even though one of the richest countries culturally, and the guy there just couldn’t believe, as he’s walking through the streets of Bamako talking to me, that I work on hunger issues because he just refused to believe we had it here. I explained to him, much of what he got, he got for free or he got because he lived on land; he collected firewood himself. You don’t have to pay rent in many places; it’s subsistent so it’s a different kind of problem here.

Joel, thank you so much for the work that you do and for coming into GRITtv.

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