Hunger Isn’t a Supply Problem

The holiday season is over. The new year is behind us. Everyone is back at school, and the pangs of empty bellies in the US are being at least appeased in some cases, though not entirely held at bay; thanks to extensive school lunch programs, backpack programs, and supplementary nutrition programs, children are being fed. Which is a good thing, because almost 25% of children in the US live in a household that experiences food insecurity during at least part of the year. And this, homechickens, should be a source of national shame and embarrassment, for two reasons:

1) The US is one of the wealthiest nations in the world

2) We produce an absolutely ridiculous among of food

Historically, hunger has been approached in mainstream awareness campaigns and other settings as a single, primary issue: One of supply. To solve hunger, we are told, it is simply necessary to put more food out there, and to route it properly. This holds true globally. Children are hungry because they have no food, obviously! So to fix hunger, it is thereby necessary to use food banks and other charitable distribution centres as venues for getting food out to as many members of the public as possible. To fix hunger, we just need to get more food into more places, and to push for better nutrition; thus, we need to shame parents who don’t feed their children the right thing, for example.

Maybe we should try things like making fresh produce available in corner stores, or supporting school nutrition with more funding so children can eat better food, but fundamentally, hunger is a problem of supply. Right? If we want people to be fed, we need to feed them, and we can’t feed them without, well, food. That notion is the underpinning not just of charitable endeavors, but also less charitable ones — like the stranglehold on industrial agriculture held by firms like Monsanto, which claim that they are adding value to the overall human quality of life by developing crops that produce higher yields, withstand pests better, and improve farming. Such firms take advantage of popular notions about hunger to push through protectionist legislation while at the same time enjoying unprecedented regulatory laxity; after all, they’re feeding the poor.

The poor.

Hunger is not a problem of supply. It is a problem of class. The amount of food available does not matter: What matters is the ability to afford it. Yes, US grocery stores throw out a shocking amount of food every day and food waste overall in the US is shameful — and, notably, the US would still have enough food to keep everyone nourished even with all this waste. Yes, the availability of food is an indisputable problem in a number of US communities, where there may be few or no options at local stores, if there are even local stores, and traveling further afield for food is not an option. Both of these things, and some other supply issues, are indisputable problems.

But fundamentally, hunger is about who has the money and who does not. People don’t go to food banks because their local stores don’t have produce. They go because they cannot afford to eat. People don’t ask for food stamps because there’s no corner store with at least some food products in their neighborhood. They apply because they can’t buy food on their own. People don’t apply for benefits programs through farmers markets and urban farms simply because they feel like supporting local farmers and want to go through the hassle of getting free or reduced-cost food. They do so because they can’t afford fresh food. Children don’t apply for free or reduced lunch out of sheer perversity, because they love jumping through hoops so they can eat mediocre cafeteria food. They apply because they are hungry, because they are not getting enough food at home, and because the school can provide a hot and nutritious lunch. Schools don’t set up backpack and supplemental food programs that allow kids to take food home for funsies: They do it because their pupils are low-income and because their parents cannot afford to feed them.

These are issues of class, not supply. The problem of hunger can’t be solved by making more food available. To solve hunger, we need to address income inequality and issues of class. Food is expensive, and growing more so. Many people can’t afford it — and to fix that, we need to pay them more. We need to create more job security. We need to protect them from wage theft. We need to provide them with benefits and force their employers to do so. We must provide a means for social advancement. We must help people attend college and graduate debt-free. We must have a higher minimum wage and eliminate specialised subminimum wage categories like wait wages and the exemption for disabled employees.

Low-income people spend many nights in the US hungry, despite the promise of an allegedly better future for everyone. It’s not because they can’t track down some lentils and kale on their way home from work (if they even have jobs, which, in this economy, is genuinely a matter of doubt). It’s because the paycheques they bring home are barely large enough (and sometimes too small) to pay rent and utilities, let alone manage unexpected expenses, let alone buy food.

What’s it going to be? The electric bill, or some produce? That’s not a matter of supply: That’s all about money, who has it, and who doesn’t.

Image: Eau du Tomato, Celeste RC, Flickr