Slowly but surely our American culture needs to move towards a new and revolutionary approach to hunger (or food insecurity). Two ideas need to be developed in order to promote a national dialogue leading to the end of hunger in America. The first still-controversial idea is that access to adequate food is a basic human right. The second idea is that we need to undertake a comprehensive review of the entire apparatus of responses given to hunger in our country.
The recent USDA report that 49 million Americans (including 17 million children), were food insecure in 2008, has produced a vast discussion and indignation among many in our society. It is not that we came from a baseline situation of zero food insecurity. There were already 36 million people food insecure in 2007 but somehow, little political action was taken as a result. Furthermore, we don’t have to wait another year to get the 2009 report of food insecurity. We know that even more Americans are food insecure now, as we speak.
Americans are having difficulty figuring out where those 49 million people are, since we have had an assumption that only the homeless go hungry. In fact, hunger in America is a broad spectrum of the unemployed, the underemployed, those whose wages or assistance don’t stretch through the month, and finally, yes, the homeless. So, the first condition is to acknowledge that hunger in America is everywhere. There is no reason to believe that our clear social inequities would not impact our fridge or the meals we put on our table. The facts about the persisting and aggravated hunger in America are a clear indication that the subject has to be taken out of its shadow and onto everyone’s radar screen.
The idea that access to food is a basic human right has not yet penetrated into American political discussion because we have the assumption that basic human rights have already been defined comprehensively by our laws and constitution. (No one would argue that one can achieve “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” with inadequate food. Food is the pre-condition for the exercise of constitutional rights.) As with all the modifications of the concept of a right that have gone before in American history, the change requires a progression in which the national discussion can get used to the idea. Once we acknowledge food security as a basic human right, the dialogue can begin.
The second idea, which is a corollary to this discussion, requires policy makers to review the existing responses to food insecurity including the very concept of charity associated with some of the current food distribution infrastructure. The government needs to institutionalize manageable and cost effective alternatives that reflect the shift in thinking about food security as a basic human right, and not a condition that is fulfilled on a voluntary or charitable basis. And we need to resist the creation of parallel structures that are far from being cost efficient and perpetuate or replicate the very condition of inequality that is one of the root causes of hunger in America.
Poor and hungry people should be able to access the food they need in a dignified way, from the local supermarkets or other food stores and markets (or from growing their own food). All children in school should receive good quality and nutritious food, every day. Food stamps for the unemployed, the underpaid, the homeless and anyone who cannot access food, should become the rule until many other changes take place that will ultimately align the cost of living with the minimum salary for the employed and create more jobs.
Combined, these two ideas–that food is a basic right and that those who are hungry should be integrated into society without a separate infrastructure to serve them–illustrate that a major rethinking needs to take place in the way hunger is conceived and addressed in American society, just as the problem is worsening. It’s becoming clear that the impact of these two ideas will have to accelerate as 49 million food insecure (i.e. hungry!) people require an immediate and radical change in the way our country deals with the hunger problem and its underlying causes.
The writer is currently Executive Director of Palms for Life Fund, which is sponsoring the 2009 Faces of Hunger in America Film Contest. She previously worked for 29 years with the United Nations World Food Program.