Wednesday, November 17, 2010

stamps III

This afternoon while I was at work I got a slightly panicky voicemail from my supervisor at the Market. Apparently my food stamps caseworker had just called asking her all kinds of questions about my eligibility for food stamps in relation to my AmeriCorps job (which is completely unrelated to my market job, which I explained to my caseworker in the interview). So... it might be awhile.

In the meantime, as I cringe at my budget spreadsheet and tap my foot in impatience, I've been pondering two apparently contradictory messages of the (admittedly fragmented) US "food movement".

A. Americans spend, on average, less than 10% of their money on food. This is very low, both historically and in comparison to other countries. And it does not reflect the true costs of growing food because cheap food does not guarantee a decent living for those who work in our food chain, address the environmental impact of agriculture, or accurately reflect the costs of growing food (since we subsidize oil and certain commodity crops). Therefore, food is not expensive enough.

B. One in 8 Americans (and 1 in 4 American children) is on food stamps. And there are millions more who qualify but aren't, for a variety of reasons, receiving food stamps or other nutritional assistance. Recently released USDA food security numbers for 2009 show that 1 in 4 US children live in a house that sometimes runs out of food. Therefore, for many, food is too expensive.

So within the "food movement" we have the locavores and proponents of sustainable ag saying we should pay more for our food, and the anti-hunger folks saying, essentially, that we are paying more than we can afford already.

I've been wondering why no one was talking about this contradiction, until today I found them...well...talking about it.

In the locavore corner we have Michael Pollan who says in a New York Review of Books essay:
Hunger activists like Joel Berg, in All You Can Eat: How hungry is America? criticize supporters of "sustainable" agriculture...for advocating reforms that threaten to raise the cost of food to the poor.

...the "hunger" lobby has traditionally supported farm subsidies in exchange for the farm lobby's support of nutrition programs, a marriage of convenience that vastly complicates reform of the farm bill - a top priority for the food movement.
In his reply, Joel Berg (anti-hunger advocate with NYC Coalition Against Hunger) points out that his book does include serious criticism of current US farm policy, and that what he'd like from the locavores is proposals to help those who are already food insecure handle the costs of higher prices for food that more accurately reflect the costs of production.

As I run in both the local/sustainable and anti-hunger crowds, I'm trying to find a way to reconcile the two, something better than the anemic conclusions Berg and Pollan come to - that we can all agree that the food system is broken and we need to work together to fix it.

It seems to me that a reasonable place to start is by making sure folks in the food chain are paid a living wage. Pollan does a good job in pointing out the perversity of this when he observes in the contemporary US food economy:
an upside-down version of the social compact sometimes referred to as "Fordism": instead of paying workers well enough to allow them to buy things like cars, as Henry Ford proposed to do, companies like Wal-Mart and McDonalds pay their workers so poorly they can afford only the cheap, low-quality food these companies sell, creating a kind of non-virtuous cycle driving down both wages and the quality of food.
Many of the folks I screen who qualify for nutritional assistance (food stamps, WIC, school lunches etc.) work minimum wage jobs in the food industry, and don't get me started on farmworkers.

And in my own life? I'm excited to spend my EBT dollars at the farmers' market.

If I ever get them, that is.

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