Joel Berg’s All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America? is something of a primer on hunger and food insecurity in America. It traces the fitful history of nutrition assistance programs in this country from the Industrial Revolution, when hunger started to become a serious problem, through the Great Depression, when it could not be ignored (although plenty of politicians opposed to “the dole” tried), and through the 60s and 70s, when federal programs made real strides toward the goal of eliminating hunger completely. And the book continues through the dark days of the 1980s, when ketchup became a vegetable, and a smiling, grandfatherly president made it OK to hate and punish the less fortunate. There is a chapter devoted to the political minefield of Welfare Reform, which saw an immediate decrease in hunger, but then faltered under the Bush administration’s much-less-than-compassionate conservatism, and yet another decade of Reaganomics.
So, where are we now? About half-way through the book, there are three paragraphs that capture where we stand in the battle against hunger:
When it comes to fighting hunger, America has moved away from coordinated, guaranteed, government antipoverty program of proven effectiveness and has instead increasingly returned to reliance on social service bucket brigades – volunteer-run food pantries and soup kitchens.
In the decades since the 1980s, as the federal antipoverty safety net eroded and wages lost their purchasing power, the number of charitable antihunger agencies exploded. In 1980, there were only a few hundred of these agencies, mostly soup kitchens on the "skid rows" of large cities. Today, there are more than 40,000 feeding organizations across urban suburban and rural areas of the nation – with roughly two-thirds being food pantries that serve families.
Rather than using modern sorting machines, these charities typically sort their food donations by hand, one can at a time. Rather than being staffed by trained social service professionals paid to work regular business hours, they are usually run by untrained volunteers available to provide food only a few times a month when they have no other obligations. And rather than serving as a last resort – in other word, secondary to more serious government hunger-prevention efforts such as boosting the minimum wage or hiking food stamp benefits – these agencies have increasingly become the nation’s first line of defense against hunger.
I know from my volunteer work at a local cupboard that that characterization is dead on target, and that’s why I recommend How Hungry is America? to everyone I meet in the service of feeding the hungry. We are fighting a national crisis. Thirty-five-and-a-half million people are “food-insecure,” which means that they are hungry or on the brink of hunger. We know that the cost of hunger to our economy is roughly $90 billion per year, which is money thrown away. We know what programs succeed in significantly lessening food insecurity and hunger — we’ve seen them work in the past — but they remain underfunded, their efficacy poorly understood even by self-identified liberals, progressives and Democrats. Instead, we seem satisfied to rely on charity to solve the problem, when it simply cannot.
The last third of How Hungry is America is dedicated to Joel’s suggested solutions to the problem of hunger and food insecurity nationwide. I hope that he’ll describe some in the next two hours. As you’d guess, they involve a modernized and strengthened safety net – one that’s easier to access, more efficient to run and funded at only slightly higher levels than we invest now. But getting there won’t be easy, even with the more reasonable Obama administration in the White House. The challenge remains to recast human needs spending as investment and make it clear to everyone from our leadership down to the kindhearted volunteers who give hundreds of hours of their lives fighting hunger in their own communities that when it comes to this problem, government is the solution and that the investments that finally end hunger will benefit everyone, not just the formerly hungry. Defeating thirty years of deeply internalized “Welfare Queen” imagery and generating the political will to create a welfare-to-work program that supports, rather than sabotages, the participants is going to take grassroots organizing on a huge scale.
So, the bad news is that ending hunger and food insecurity in America is going to take nothing less than a second Poor People’s Campaign. The good news is that we know that it can be done because we’ve seen the glimmerings of victory in the past. Joel Berg’s How Hungry is America? reminds us that with a lot of the right sort of very hard work, we can do it again and maybe we’ll win for real this time.