I was so hungry this morning when I woke up that for a full five minutes before getting out of bed I was determined to quit this world hunger journey, call the whole thing off, and spend all day in the kitchen eating everything I could get my hands on. For the past six days I have been mimicking the diet of the world’s 1.2 billion chronically hungry people and I am absolutely sick of it. I truly believe that if every person on earth, not just 1 out of 6 of us, felt like this for just one week in their lives, chronic hunger would be completely eliminated. After all, there is more than enough food for everyone to live comfortably, and once you experience this stomach clenching emptiness and leg shaking weakness, there really is no way you would willingly allow other human beings to suffer like this. So, after a full five minutes of self-pity and frustration, I dragged myself out of bed, put all thoughts of pancakes, hashbrowns, and chocolate out of my mind and began to explore today’s topic: hunger in the developed world, specifically the United States of America. I will also be sharing an interview from People’s Grocery, a community based organization in West Oakland, California developing creative solutions to the health problems in their community that stem from a lack of access to, and education about, healthy, fresh foods.
Last night’s Cambodian inspired meal of tofu, veggies, and rice kept me satisfied and totally full for hours after dinner. I rarely ever eat tofu, but it was a nice change of pace from the beans that have made up the majority of this past week’s meals. After dinner I fell asleep easily, a welcome change to the tossing and turning I’ve become accustomed to on this world hunger journey. Unfortunately, however, my body doesn’t hold on to 1,000 calories for long and, like I said, I woke up absolutely ravenous. Waking up has been the hardest part of this experience, even harder than the hunger pangs keeping me awake at night. Morning seems to be when my body’s demand for food is hardest to ignore and my resolve against giving in is weakest. Again, I am in awe that Kenda Swartz Pepper managed to do this for 21 days, and humbled by the knowledge that so much of humanity has no other choice but to feel like this always.
Today my virtual world tour of chronic hunger focuses on hunger in the developed world, specifically the United State of America. Many people in the rich global north think of hunger as something that happens ‘over there’, in a vague, unspecified country on the other side of the globe where people are poor and life is hard. What they don’t know is that there are 49 million Americans facing chronic hunger. Poverty and hunger aren’t conditions specific to only a few geographic locations, they are world wide, and the numbers of people afflicted are growing, even in the U.S. Nearly 50 million Americans, and almost 1 in 4 children, were facing chronic hunger in 2009. Prompted by the economic crisis this is the highest number of Americans facing hunger since the government began keeping track of the statistic.
1 in 9 Americans are currently on food stamps, receiving government assistance so they can afford to buy food, and half of all American children will be fed by food stamps at one point during their childhood. It seems that for many people the American Dream has turned out to be just a figment of the imagination. One of the great enduring myths about the U.S. is that it is the land of opportunity, a place where anyone can make it to the top. And while technically that may be true, in actual practice this kind of bootstrap self leveraging is nothing but a fantasy. America has both a high rate of income inequality and very low rate of social mobility, meaning that children don’t usually exceed their parent’s level of wealth and economic standing. In the United States children from low income families have only a 1% chance of reaching the top 5% of income distribution, as compared to the children from wealthy families who enjoy a 22% chance. Children from middle class families have a slightly higher chance of ending up in the lower income bracket than they do of reaching the higher income bracket. And their chances of ending up in the top 5% of income distribution is only 1.8%, barely higher than the children from low income families. This stagnation of progress builds a growing underclass of people who end their lives where they started: in poverty.
“By international standards, the United States has an unusually low level of intergenerational mobility: our parents’ income is highly predictive of our incomes as adults. Intergenerational mobility in the United States is lower than in France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway and Denmark. Among high-income countries for which comparable estimates are available, only the United Kingdom had a lower rate of mobility than the United States.” ~ American Progress.org
Poverty, and therefore chronic hunger, in the US often falls along racial lines. According to the 2008 US Census 13.2% of all Americans are experiencing poverty. However, in the African American community the percentage of people struggling with poverty rises to 24.7%, nearly 1 in 4 people. While 1 in 4 American children will at some point be fed by food stamps, a shocking 90% of all black children will be fed by food stamps during their childhood. 59% of Latino children in the US grow up in low income families, 20% more than the national average. African American and Latino families are more than twice as likely to report that food in their home is scarce.
“So long as low-income minority children have to fight racism and multi-generational poverty from birth onwards, they’ll never truly experience the land of opportunity we read about in our elementary school textbooks, the country that so many immigrants still desperately search for upon their arrival to our ‘city upon a hill’.” ~ Charlotte Hill
African Americans are also much more likely than white Americans to face the problem of food deserts. Food deserts, large geographic areas with no or only distant grocery stores, are a growing problem in the United States. Food deserts are concentrated in low income neighborhoods that have an imbalance of food choice. While these areas have a predominance of fast food restaurants, liquor stores, and convenience stores they lack easy and affordable access to healthy, fresh foods, especially fruits and vegetables. Convenience stores only carry a small selection of fresh fruit and vegetables, that is often much more expensive than the processed junk food items also on the shelves. According to the 2000 US Census, 23.5 million Americans, 8.4% of the population, live in low-income neighborhoods that are a mile or more away from the nearest grocery store. 2.3 million Americans living in food deserts do not have access to a car. Lack of time to devote to traveling and a lack of money or ability to utilize transportation strands these people in a barren nutritional wasteland, where the only option is often the poisonous offerings of fast food restaurants and the empty calories found on convenience store shelves. The calorie laden food people in food deserts are often forced to rely on is actually nutritionally lacking, bereft of the vitamins and minerals necessary for health, which leads to a higher than average incidence of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and premature death.
“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.” ~ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Federal subsidies play a large role in determining what kind of food Americans are able to afford. As you can see in the diagram above, 73.8% of government food subsidies go to the producers of meat and dairy, two products which, according to a substantial body of research including The China Study, one of the largest nutritional studies every undertaken, are completely unnecessary to human health and have been linked to high rates of heart disease and cancer, the two leading causes of death in the United States. Many people in America are still victims of the protein myth, the belief that animal protein is needed in large quantities to ensure health, which leads to the average American consuming twice the amount of daily recommended protein. The fact is, protein is one of the last things you need to worry about getting enough of. If you eat a calorie sufficient and varied plant based vegan diet you will easily consume the recommended daily allowance of protein. When I’m not mimicking the diet of the world’s 1.2 billion hungry people, I easily exceed the amount of protein I need to eat, and I do it on a whole food vegan diet, without any supplementation or protein powders and only a very minimal amount of soy.
The protein myth that pushes dairy and meat products on Americans at astronomical levels has given the U.S. one of the highest rates of cancer, heart disease, and osteoporosis in the world. But still, the myth persists and the government funds it to the tune of millions of dollars a year. Producers do everything they can to keep consumers buying animal products, including formulating industry wide ‘happy meat’ marketing ploys like ‘free-range’ and ‘cage-free’. A piece of meat might cost few dollars at the store, but the actual, unseen price, in addition to the vast tax payer funded subsidies, is the environmental destruction caused in the production process; the waste of corn, grain, and water, needed to raise a cow for slaughter; and the health issues inherent in a high animal protein diet. When a person only has a small amount of money to purchase food for themselves and their family and they are faced with the onslaught of the pervasive protein myth, the growing problem of food deserts, and the fact that you can often buy a burger for less than the cost of a salad, making smart and sustainable food choices often becomes a hopeless dream.
Big agriculture, propped up by taxpayer’s money, has promoted the idea that sustainable, egalitarian food production is an elitist fantasy, but the truth is it is a necessary component to human dignity that they purposefully try to keep out of our reach. I have written before on the need for the American people to demand the best for their bodies, and insist on a move towards organic, healthy food that is accessible to all people. As Kenda covered during her 21 day world hunger “Souljourn”, supporting local farmers markets and requesting organic, local produce at your grocery store is a great way to start. However, these two options can sometimes seem unrealistic for people living with poverty.
People’s Grocery is changing all of that. A unique West Oakland organization, People’s Grocery is changing the way the food system works. They believe that everyone, regardless of income, should have access to healthy, fresh foods. They call this belief that food is a human right ‘food justice’.
“People’s Grocery works toward creating a food system that centralize the needs of the urban poor and develop programs and enterprises that produce and distribute fresh foods, provide nutrition education, promote urban agriculture and create local jobs.” ~ People’s Grocery
I would like to share with you the interview I had with Nikki Henderson, Executive Director of People’s Grocery.
Burge: People’s Grocery is committed to changing the way the food system works and fighting food insecurity. What is wrong with the way the food system works in America today?
Henderson: Limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables for people in vulnerable communities creates health problems that become serious human rights violations. The fact that people born of a particular ethnicity, in a particular location are categorically more likely to die earlier with more disease is a blight on this country. It’s our duty and obligation to make sure these health impacts due to limited access to a healthy diet are corrected.
Burge: How did the idea of People’s Grocery originate?
Henderson: People’s Grocery was founded in 2003 by three residents who saw that limited access to nutritious and affordable foods, a lack of stable jobs and limited opportunities for enterprise development in West Oakland were having negative impacts on the quality of life of low-income families.
Burge: It can be hard for people to believe that in a country as wealthy as the US, hunger and food insecurity affects as many as 1 out of every 9 people. How widespread is the problem of hunger in the community that you work with?
Henderson: We see the effects of hunger everyday. Something people don’t realize is that hunger affects more than just one’s stomach—it affects their worldview, and their ability to function. When young black men kill each other during the high summer days in Oakland, did anyone ask them what they’d eaten recently?
Burge: You believe that food is a human right. How can this simple concept change the world?
Henderson: If we saw food as a human right, we would re-establish the value that certain basic needs are not private property. If someone cannot afford food, they should have it anyway. This would translate into: if someone cannot afford water, housing, etc, they should have it anyway. It would open the door to evolved economic systems that serve the people and the greater good.
Burge: What were some of the struggles People’s Grocery experienced during its creation?
Henderson: Because we are attempting something fairly new, a systematic altering of the food system in our neighborhood, People’s Grocery has had to be as adaptable as we are visionary. Not just in the beginning, but also throughout our work, we’ve had to learn the lessons of the market, the neighborhood, and where our strengths and challenges lie within a changing economy and city. We have let go of programs we love and start programs where we had to acquire or build new competencies. That way of working is a challenge, but we are moving in a great direction.
Burge: Can you explain how and why food deserts have originated in parts of America and the effects they have on the health and well being of the citizens?
Henderson: A few decades ago, the grocery stores in urban areas began moving to suburban areas because the profit was higher. Large chains have a number of reasons why it’s difficult to operate a grocery store in an inner-city neighborhood: employee turnover is high, demand is low, etc. These widespread beliefs have filtered through the mainstream food distribution system, and now we have similar neighborhoods around the country with no grocery stores. Luckily, local, sustainable movements have prospered over the years, so the lack of grocery stores will be replaced in part by small markets, farmer’s markets, etc.
Burge: People in the U.S. are experiencing a profound disconnection from the way their food is grown. Do you think this is a contributing factor to the decline of health in America? In your experience, how has urban farming transformed this lack of connection?
Henderson: When people don’t know where their food comes from, the connection between diet and health is lost. It makes intuitive sense to someone that a vegetable eaten fresh out of the ground after harvesting is healthier than a vegetable that has been canned for years. Urban Farming provides every day people with the opportunity to learn how to interact with fresh produce, and this interaction leads to a deeper ongoing relationship with fruits and vegetables. This leads to healthier eating!
Burge: Have you come up against any political challenges in your work? How does the U.S. political and agricultural infrastructure hinder the actions of people trying to enjoy local, sustainable food?
Henderson: We come up against the same political challenges all small organizations do: the larger political system does not fully support local, sustainable food systems. The political and legislative machine of the Food and Farm Bill supports commodity crops en masse more than local systems. Current agricultural practices not only damage the land, but the people who farm in America.
Burge: I’m very interested in your work with community outreach and education, especially in regards to young people. What have you found to be a successful strategy to ignite the desire to change the status quo and learn more about food and nutrition?
Henderson: Youth speaking to youth has been very successful. We had a Peer-to-Peer program that allowed graduates of our youth program to design their own curriculum and encourage other youth to care more about their health and well being.
Burge: Can you tell us about some of your success stories? How has People’s Grocery changed the lives of the people in the community?
Henderson: At the moment, my favorite success stories are from the cooking class. I spoke to a gentleman who used salt in enormous amounts and would never have a meal without meat. After the cooking class, he now uses extra virgin olive oil, Bragg amino acids instead of salt, and has an occasion meatless meal! His entire attitude changed, and we have plenty of those stories.
Thank you so much to the inspiring people from People’s Grocery for their help in my research and for the world changing work that they do. And thank you to Nikki Henderson for sharing her knowledge and experience. Be sure to check out their website, spread the news about their vision, and maybe start your own version in your community!
Every day I send these articles off to be published later and later. As my body slows down and cries out for food and rest, my brain responds with sluggish thoughts and an inability to focus. I need more breaks during the day, I close my eyes and doze for longer stretches, and it is starting to feel as if I’m moving underwater, against the stream. Simple, easy things take a lot of my attention and I honestly do not know if I could continue like this if I had longer than one day to go.
Today’s post was difficult for more reasons than just exhaustion. America is such a land of extremes and my mind couldn’t make the two ends of the spectrum match up. At one end, you have millions and millions of people struggling with chronic hunger, and at the other end you have a country that, according to the USDA, throws out 263,013,699 lbs of food a day. 1.5 tons of edible food is wasted per year for every hungry American woman, man and child. Twenty seven % of all food produced in the U.S. each year is lost at the retail, consumer, and food service levels. I had to check these numbers more than once, and i even comically rubbed my eyes on occasion. They seem outlandish and unreal, don’t they? What a disgusting travesty, what a slap in the face to the 49 million Americans who are chronically hungry. Like I said before, some people have so much they literally throw it out, while others have none at all and they starve.
After reading about the astronomic levels of food waste in the U.S., there was no way I could let any of my own food go to waste. I never can, actually, I’m usually pretty diligent about using up everything we’ve got. On those rare occasions when I unearth a moldy, forgotten tomato, or a wilted and soggy bunch of cilantro, I feel annoyed and angry with myself, and that was before going on this world hunger project. If I wasted food now, I think I might cry. So, I took some of the beans and rice dinner that I enjoyed on my day spent focused on hunger in Latin America, and I added a zucchini and bell pepper and it was delicious.
|Food Name||Amount||Calories||Fat (g)||Carbohydrates (g)||Protein (g)|
|Olive Oil||1 Tbsp||119||13.5||0||0|
Total Calories: 1,067
Total Fat: 41.7
Total Carbohydrates: 149
Total Protein: 26.6
To support the organizations I write about in this series, purchase a World Hunger: Be the Solution Tee. Proceeds from the shirt will go to the Small Planet Institute Fund and the International Fund for Africa. All tees are sweat free and available in organic cotton. To see the selection of World Hunger tees at Conducive’s Humanitarian & Human Rights Tee store, click here
To Follow Natasha’s World Hunger Journey
7 Days for World Hunger: Day 1
7 Days for World Hunger: Day 2
7 Days for World Hunger: Day 3
7 Days for World Hunger: Day 4
7 Days for World Hunger: Day 5
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