Hungering For Better Policy

With rising economic uncertainty comes rising food insecurity. Almost 15% of US households experienced food insecurity in 2008 and this is a number I think we can sadly predict will rise. Not least because food stamp applications are steadily increasing in the United States. There is not a one to one correspondence between such applications and food insecurity, but they can definitely be an indicator of increasing difficulty when it comes to obtaining reliable food supplies. Likewise, numbers of applicants to food banks and similar organisations are also on the rise; more people are hungry and more people are seeking assistance.

My colleague Emmy Manuel at Global Comment recently ran a piece on the looming global food crisis, discussing the very serious worldwide consequences not just of rising food prices, but of issues that can limit food availability. These range from, as she puts it, ‘the inequity of capitalism which artificially creates food crises by putting the needs of capital ahead of food producers’ to environmental issues like hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, and other climate change-related problems that contribute to crop failure, difficulty handling and storing crops, and problems with crop transportation. It doesn’t help to get a big corn crop if it molders in storage, or if fuel costs are so high that you can’t actually take it anywhere.

Households with children in particular tend to face very high food insecurity rates. This has important implications when we start talking about policy initiatives like cuts to government benefits. Some children, for example, rely heavily on school lunch programmes for nutrition, along with supplemental food programmes in the summer months. When these are cut off or the eligibility guidelines for free or low-cost lunch are changed, it can have a profound impact on children living in hunger.

The government distinguishes between a number of different levels of food insecurity, which is important to consider when evaluating statistics. It can vary from experiencing ‘some’ insecurity in the form of intermittent periods where it is hard to access food to experiencing consistent and unrelenting hunger. Hunger leading to severe disease is relatively rare in the United States, although nutritional deficiencies caused by inadequate food supplies are not. And many, many households report some level of food insecurity, like the classic example of knowing that you get paid on the first and fifthteenth and being well aware that the days right before your paycheque comes in can be hungry ones because you don’t have enough money to supply your food needs for each pay period.

Food security is a critical issue to be talking about because it has such sweeping ramifications. Hunger, as Manuel points out, can lead to social unrest almost more quickly than any other form of deprivation. When you are hungry and you are watching food prices rise and you are seeing people profit at the expense of your suffering, it tends to make you very, very angry. And malnutrition can have serious consequences for a society, particularly for children and pregnant women, who have more demanding nutritional needs. Nutritional deficits can have a profound impact on a child’s performance in school, for example. This can lead to decreased opportunities later in life; if you are identified as a poor academic performer, you are not provided with the same support given to other students, you may be less likely to attend college, to be encouraged in academic pursuits, to get an opportunity at a better chance in life.

This is also clearly, palpably, an institutional, not a personal, issue. In places like the United States we actually have a food surplus, and significant stockpiles of perfectly edible food and supplies. Yet, we have a large percentage of the population, a percentage that is growing, that is hungry at least some of the time. This is the result of a disconnect between food and the people who need it; it is not the personal responsibility of poor people, it is about the institutions that control food access. It is about the legislators who decide on the cutoffs to determine who receives assistance, it is about the policies at service organisations that work with low income people, it is about the use of crop subsidies to lower the costs of food production while prices on the shelf still rise.

Which makes it an excellent test case of an example of a situation that could be rectified with institutional efforts. There is no reason anyone in the world should be going hungry, let alone in the United States. And there is no reason that people should be experiencing malnutrition in their daily lives, even when they are meeting or exceeding their caloric needs[1. Something often ignored in the moral panic about fatness is that many people who are clinically obese are also clinically malnourished, even when they report food intake that exceeds the recommended daily allowance of calories. Malnutrition is not as simple as ‘doesn’t eat enough.’]. The fact that hunger and malnutrition continue to be problems is illustrative of a lack of priorities on the part of government agencies.

We should be able to get food, balanced food with good nutritional value that is also culturally appropriate, into the hands of people who need it. We have the mechanisms in place to distribute food efficiently and rapidly, to provide outreach and education, and we don’t. The fact that, even after declaring ‘wars’ on poverty and hunger, we still experience hunger, is a sign of how little the government has done to follow through with these interventions, which are sorely needed, because this is an institutional problem that individuals cannot solve.