Talking food in the new world

joel-hi-res

By Mara Grunbaum
Staff Writer

What does the word “hunger” call to mind? A malnourished child in a third-world country? An unemployed man in a tattered coat standing in a Depression-era breadline? How about a mother working two jobs and struggling with obesity?
Though few Americans actually starve, more than one in ten experience what the government calls “food insecurity,” meaning they don’t always know where their meals will come from, or the food they do obtain isn’t nutritious enough to keep them healthy. Most of them are working parents, children, seniors or people with disabilities.

Joel Berg has been working to change that for decades. An activist since high school, he became interested in hunger issues as an Americorps volunteer. He worked as a policy analyst at the Progressive Policy Institute before joining the Clinton administration in 1993. For eight years, Berg held a variety of senior positions at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where he led programs to improve community food security and increase food recovery and gleaning.

Since 2001, Berg has directed the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, which advocates for anti-hunger legislation and policy. In his recent book, All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America, Berg talks about the history of hunger in America, the policies that shape it now, and what we can do to fix it — for less than it’s costing us already.

Mara Grunbaum: What got you into hunger advocacy?

Joel Berg: I’m into hunger because it’s a proxy for talking about poverty. People in America don’t want to talk about poverty, but they will talk to you about hunger. So it’s a way to begin the conversation about poverty in America.
So many people are involved in environmental issues, social issues, gay rights, anti-torture — all important issues, but the number of educated, skilled people who focus on poverty issues is sort of limited. I felt there was a vacuum there that I was at least partially helping to fill.

Plus, I love food. Maybe a little too much. I just can’t fathom anyone even so much as worrying where their next meal will come from.

M.G.: What does hunger look like in America today?

J.B.: Certainly hunger in America defies the stereotypes. Most Americans who have a mental picture of hunger imagine a little African child on parched dirt with a distended belly, surrounded by flies and Sally Struthers. They have no clue that it’s their neighbor who just isn’t earning enough. There is no one face of hunger in America, except to say that it’s surprising to most Americans.

People tend to identify poverty and hunger with homelessness. In most of the country, less than 10 percent of people who are going to soup kitchens and food pantries are homeless. It’s not about people living on the streets — that’s certainly among the most food insecure subsections — but it’s people who are too poor to afford enough food.

Two thirds of the people on the food stamps program are either children, working parents, senior citizens or people with disabilities. The fastest-growing population for years has been working families — people who are working hard and playing by the rules, but just don’t earn enough.

Unfortunately, this has just been sort of whitewashed out of American society. Two years ago, there were 25 million people going to food pantries and soup kitchens. Last year there were 36 million people living in households that couldn’t afford enough food. People say, “Oh, it’s a hidden issue.” Well, hidden to who? Thirty-six million people is a number larger than the entire population of the state of California.

M.G.: So why doesn’t anyone want to talk about it?

J.B.: Conservatives want to downplay the very existence of poverty, because it shows their policies have failed. “Regular Americans” don’t want to think about something depressing. If there’s poverty in, you know, Sudan, they can feel bad about it, but they don’t really feel responsible. If there’s poverty here, they feel responsible.

Progressives have not really focused on poverty for decades. The media doesn’t cover these issues anymore. In previous years, the only time they covered it was to give the impression that some celebrity serving turkeys on Thanksgiving is solving the problem. In the last few months they’ve covered it only as, “Oh my goodness! Formerly middle class people are in trouble! People like us, people with incomes like us, with backgrounds like us, people we know in our social circle. So now it’s a problem.”

M. G.: What’s the impact of hunger on the rest of the system? Those people who don’t see a problem — are there ways it still affects them?

J.B: Absolutely. Hunger costs our economy $90 billion a year. Hungry children learn less well, hungry workers work less productively, hungry Americans cost our society tens of billions of dollars a year in health care. So whether people understand it or not, they’re seeing that every day.

I’ve actually calculated that as of two years ago, we could end hunger entirely in America for about $24 billion a year. And it costs our society $90 billion a year. If a handyman or a handywoman comes to your house and says, “Hey, there’s a hole in your roof. You’re losing the air conditioning and it’s costing you $90 a year in extra utility bills. I could fix it for $24.” Wouldn’t you do it? And that’s really what we’re dealing with.

M.G.: Where would that $24 billion go?

J.B.: Well, this is sort of an intellectual game more than a specific policy prescription, because to precisely apply it, you would have to spend it only on the hungry people, and only give each of them no more than they need to be non-hungry.
Certainly I propose expanding the federal nutrition assistance safety net, but also reforming it and making it far more easy to get. Right now there are more than a dozen different federal nutrition assistance programs, and they have separate applications, separate bureaucracies you have to go through. Just make them one.

You could easily spend much of the $24 billion on that. You could spend some money to make (school) breakfast available to all kids regardless of their family income.

M.G.:In the book, you talk about obesity as the flipside of hunger. Can you explain that? It’s not necessarily an obvious connection.

J.B.: Obesity is really the flipside of the same malnutrition coin. When low-income people can’t afford to purchase food, they buy the most fattening, most filling food. The very, very hungriest people in America might actually lose weight, but the far bigger category of people that are food insecure are gaining weight, because whole milk is cheaper than skim milk. Potato chips are often cheaper than produce. Lean meat is more expensive than fatty meat. All these contribute to poor nutrition in low-income neighborhoods. And also, their kids are less likely to have gym or recess in their schools. They’re less likely to have a public park. They’re less likely to have a gym that they can afford to use. There’s no doubt that poverty and hunger and food insecurity are contributors to obesity.

M.G.: There are people advocating to change the system that makes chips cheaper than fruits and vegetables, but you’ve actually been pretty critical of some of them, right?

J.B.: Here in the West, it’s sort of the capital of the foodies, and I take some of them to task for claiming that increases in food prices are a good thing. They say it’s going to bring the international agribusiness system to its knees, and therefore it’ll be good for everyone in the long run.

But I think that’s extraordinarily class-biased. Anything that raises food prices is not good for poor people. Certainly, there are social problems with low food prices — environmental damage, sometimes slave-like conditions for migrant farm workers — and that’s all horrible, but just raising food prices isn’t going to solve those things.
I’ll give the current system credit for generally having low food prices, although over the last few years food prices have skyrocketed, so the one benefit of the system wasn’t so much the benefit anymore.

(Agribusinesses) are certainly spending a lot of money and getting a lot of subsidies to promote corn, which turns into corn syrup, and that’s not the best for human health. They’re spending a lot of money to lobby to keep these subsidies in place, and there are virtually no subsidies for fresh fruits and vegetables. So we have a very discordant system.

M. G.: So how do you change that? How do you get fresh and healthy food to people who probably don’t have the time or resources to grow their own organic garden, or what have you?

J.B.: Some have called for restricting what people can buy with food stamps. I think that’s extraordinarily patronizing. I think it would backfire. It would require a huge government bureaucracy to determine what’s good and what’s not good.
I think a much better way is getting people more money to do it, making food stamps more easily redeemable at farmer’s markets, and getting more produce available in low-income neighborhoods. I basically say that good nutrition has three legs of a stool: school availability, economic affordability, and then education.

M.G.:What about Oregon? We once had one of the highest rates of hunger in the country, but we’re about average now. What happened?

J.B.: Oregon has a special place in the book. (At USDA) I was involved in the release of state-by-state hunger numbers, and people in Texas and New Mexico — including George W. Bush — were so mad at me for supposedly making up these statistics about their state.

Most states that historically had high rates of hunger had high rates of poverty, so it was surprising when these numbers came out that Oregon and Washington had higher rates of food insecurity than they had of poverty — two states that weren’t thought to be particularly impoverished states.

There are a lot of reasons for that — high housing costs here, high number of migrant farm laborers, and a lot of people moved up here without family networks to rely upon. Be that as it may, while these other states blamed the victims, here in Oregon, people actually did something about it in a positive way. The governor did the food stamps challenge (attempting to live on a food stamp budget for a week), which really led a national movement to do that. Senator Wyden’s been a real leader on these issues.

As a result, the food stamps participation rate here is higher than the vast majority of the country. Here, depending on the estimates, it’s 80-85 percent (of people who qualify). In the rest of the country, it’s only about 65-70 percent.

As bad as hunger is here now, it would be far worse had the government not at least begun to get people food stamps. Now, I still think any program where 15 percent of the eligible people aren’t getting it is failing in a fundamental way.

M. G.: Even though you worked for Clinton, you can be pretty tough on liberals as well as conservatives.

J. B.: Well, obviously I have a lot more criticism for conservatives. I agree with them on nothing. To be totally stereotypical about it, I say traditional conservatives punish poor people, but traditional liberals patronize poor people.
I use the example of welfare reform. In the 90s, when the economy was strong and Clinton had succeeded in reducing poverty in America, welfare reform was a mixed bag. It was working better than the left predicted — there was not a massive increase in poverty.

Since then, it’s been an unmitigated disaster. Since 2000, jobs have gone away, homelessness and hunger and poverty have soared, and people are still being kicked off the welfare rolls. I blame conservatives for that, but also liberals for not seizing the moment when Clinton was president to really deal with welfare reform. The democrats in Congress basically said it’s right-wing to even discuss it; it’s racist to even bring it up. And Clinton caved to them.

Even Clinton says today that one of his biggest strategic mistakes was not doing welfare reform. Had they done it with a Democratic Congress, they could have done it in a progressive manner the way Clinton envisioned it, really moving people into jobs.
It’s not like liberals have been proposing any particular bold moves to deal with poverty over the last few decades. Obama’s a little different, and I’m very hopeful. He’s been talking about this, he understands the problem. His stimulus bill and his budget proposal have really put his money where his mouth is.

M.G.: How so?

J.B.: The stimulus bill had more than $20 billion for hunger programs, a few hundred million dollars for the Women, Infants and Children program, $150 million for soup kitchens and food pantries, $100 million for the FEMA emergency food and shelter program. That’s pretty serious. His budget proposes over a billion dollars extra for child nutrition programs. He proposes to pay for that by reducing certain agribusiness and corporate welfare and by restoring previous levels of taxation on the wealthier in our society. I think that’s incredibly progressive.

He’s called for us to solve hunger by 2015. To my knowledge, no president in U.S. history has ever put forth a specific goal to end even a type of hunger. I’m an advocate who’s only happy once in a blue moon, and I’m willing to say this is the blue moon. It doesn’t mean we don’t have to keep pushing, but as far as I’m concerned, they’re moving in the right direction.

One response to “Talking food in the new world

  1. Hi there! .! Happy Thanksgiving!!! 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂
    Thanksgiving is 1 of my favorite holidays, and every year I like to get into the mood-extend the holiday, since it were-by reading “Thanksgiving novels.” Of course, most of these stories are mostly about family and friends, about coming together to heal old hurts and getting thanks for the gift of love. .. *
    Think You’re Much better Off These days Than You Were 7 Yrs Ago?

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