Alison Schneider for The Huffington Post:
There's a generally accepted premise among food scholars that food scarcity, for the most part, is not what leads to hunger. Whether you're studying famines in various countries over the centuries, or modern day hunger in both the first and third world, the culprit is always the same: Distribution. There are more than enough calories on this planet to sustain a healthy body for every living human being. Put simply, and a bit reductively, poor people do not have access to fresh, healthful food. And when an American family has a dollar to spend on food, they will buy the least expensive and easiest option.
That option is typically made of highly subsidized commodity crops, which become, to the plain eye, sugary, salty, fatty questionable "foods." These are "foods" which satisfy in the short-term, but lead to long-term malnutrition and a host of dietary illness. When there one out of every six people in New York City receive SNAP benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) -- not including the 24 percent of those that are eligible who are not receiving benefits -- we have a serious hunger problem.
What is surprising to many of us is that distribution of fresh, healthful, unprocessed foods is as much of an issue in our very own cities as it is in any poverty-stricken country that comes to mind when you say the word "hunger." Access to the kinds of foods that not only keep our bodies well, but our environment safe, is simply out of reach for a significant percentage of the American population. Being as wealthy of a nation as we are, what's poignantly disturbing is the vast disparity between those who have limited access to real food and those who consume and discard an abundance of food rather mindlessly; it's difficult to put it any better than "Underfed and Overfed."
The Food Movement in the U.S. is addressing the issues from numerous angles to try and change the way Americans eat by working to support family farmers, re-educate consumers, and channel food to people who have systematically been denied access. Non-profit organizations, small businesses, and community projects are changing our food paradigm with growing success. And while all of that is shifting things for the better, what we need, in my opinion, is real policy change that will support small farms, reconcile the quandary that faces single mothers who can feed their children more regularly when they are not working, and put stops and boundaries on the corporate entities that not only cause these inequities, but benefit from them.
Solving hunger cannot be accomplished without a government that considers it a basic right of citizenship to have access to fresh, healthy food. And without citizens who show a growing demand in farmer's markets, school gardens and sustainable agriculture, it is hard to imagine our politicians working to ensure a better food system.
So what can we do? Vote. Vote, as Marion Nestle has said, not just with your fork, but also with your actual vote. Vote for leaders who believe that all of us deserve to be paid for our labor because hunger at its heart is tangible poverty. And vote for officials who argue that corporations should not be allowed to grow so large that they dominate our food system. Use your spending dollars to infuse your local economy and support farmers directly, because if those of us who can afford fresh, local food buy it, we will make it more accessible to those who cannot.
We have a whole new breed of farmers and entrepreneurs who are finding ways of re-distributing mark-ups on produce by getting the profits back into the hands of the people who grew the food and giving more purchasing power to the poor, now we need to find those them and support them. Our new agriculture is re-establishing biodiversity, protecting our soil, and sparing our environment all of the dangers that come with industrial agriculture. All of this in turn protects our food security for the long-term and amounts to genuinely less expensive food.
Once we admit to ourselves that there is indeed a poverty problem in the US, we need to create new systems that empower the less fortunate. Some of us do so by planting vegetables, and returning to the land. Some of us do so by returning to the farm stand. All of us need to return to the voting booth.
Alison Schneider is the founder of Haven's Kitchen, a cooking school, specialty food shop, and event space in New York City.
Photo: Travis Dove/The New York Times