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. (more…)