Tucson mayor Jonathan Rothschild welcomes attendees to the inaugural Closing the Hunger Gap conference. Photo courtesy of the Community Food Bank.
In a nation that produces so much food, why are so many people hungry? It was a question asked again and again throughout the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona’s Closing the Hunger Gap inaugural conference, which brought representatives from over 70 food banks and hunger relief organizations to Tucson.
Although food banks traditionally have focused on providing immediate hunger relief in the form of emergency food boxes, many speakers stressed that short-term strategies will only be as effective as long-term plans to change the reason so many people depend on food relief. “Poverty is the root cause of hunger,” said Jan Poppendieck, author of Sweet Charity and Free For All: Fixing School Food in America. “And the lack of a jobs is a real cause of poverty.” And those that have jobs often still can’t afford to put healthy, whole foods on the table. “Wages are too low. What’s happening to wages is the scariest thing I’ve seen,” said Poppendeick. “A full-time wage earning $7.25 an hour is only $15,080 dollars a year. If minimum wage had been keeping pace with inflation, today it would be 16 dollars an hour.”
As wages fall–or rather, the purchasing power of a dollar–the number of people reliant on SNAP benefits grow. “This is a result of public policy,” said Poppendieck. “We need to intervene in those policies.”
How precisely food banks and individuals can influence policy–and thus influence the contours of how capital moves throughout our communities–is not an easy question to answer.
One way is by advocating for incremental change. “If 20 percent of the 80 billion that is spent on SNAP benefits shifts from highly processed foods to locally grown fruits and vegetables that can improve human health, that’ll do more to change the food system forever than if every white-table restaurant in the country tomorrow bought farm-to-table,” said Michel Nischan, a James Beard-award winning chef and the founder and CEO of Wholesome Wave, a non-profit working to improve the accessibility and affordability of healthy, locally grown fruits and vegetables.
Wholesome Wave’s Double Value Coupon Program doubles the amount of money SNAP recipients receive if they buy fresh fruits and vegetables at venues like farmers’ markets. “What we’re doing is looking at existing pools of money that have already been collected from taxpayers and seeing if there’s a way to repurpose it. We’re asking to change how that money gets used so it has a greater positive impact,” said Nischan.
The challenges to solving the hunger crisis in the United States remain acute. On Thursday afternoon, midway through the conference, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to slash $40 billion from the federal food stamp program, or half of the $80 billion it’s currently allocated. The four billion dollars cut every year over the next decade could affect more than four million hungry individuals and families in the coming year–four million, of the 50 million Americans that are food insecure, that either don’t know where their next meal is coming from or know they can’t afford to buy one.
“Inequality has reached a point that hadn’t happened since 1913 when the income tax was instituted,” said Poppendieck. “We’ve gone back to a time of pre-income tax. bWhen income gets concentrated in the hands at the top, they lose their connection to the shared challenges that confront the rest of us.”
Fixing a broken food system, one that leaves 50 million American hungry, is one step towards bridging this inequality gap. “Food as a single subject has more impact, positive or negative, on human, social, environmental, economic health than any other subject,” said Nischan. “You fix food, you fix everything.”