My long-dead father used to say, “Every human being deserves to taste a piece of cake.” Though at the time his words meant little to me, as I grew older I realized both what they meant, symbolically speaking, and the grim reality they disguised so charmingly. That saying of his arose from a basic reality of our lives then — the eternal scarcity of food in our household, just as in so many other homes in New York City’s South Bronx where I grew up. This was during the 1940s and 1950s, but hunger still haunts millions of American households more than three-quarters of a century later.
In our South Bronx apartment, given the lack of food, there was no breakfast. It was simply a missing meal, so my sisters, brother, and I never expected it. Lunch was usually a sandwich and sometimes a can of juice, though none of us used the whole can. We knew enough to just put a little juice in our glass and then fill it with water. Dinner, which one of my sisters called the “real food,” would invariably be cheap and starchy servings meant to fill us. There wasn’t any cooked fish, salad, or fresh fruit. Rarely was anything left over. Most of our neighbors faced similar food scarcity and many suffered physical problems at relatively young ages: dizziness, fatigue, loss of strength, and other maladies, including asthma and diabetes.
Why food should be a basic right
Food is to health as air is to breathing. One thing I learned from the world I grew up in was that if you get little or no food for long periods of time, medical attention is likely to be needed. Children, in particular, must have enough food to thrive, grow, think, and perform then as well as later in life.
Only recently, we saw how a pandemic of unwellness — thanks to COVID-19 — could overwhelm a hospital system, leaving doctors, nurses, and health services in general overworked and in danger of collapse. Think of hunger as another kind of pandemic that, however little noticed, can also overwhelm a health-care system (or at least that modest part of ours devoted to the neediest among us). Without enough nutritious food, emotional and physical needs only continue to proliferate along with a growing demand for ever more health care.
For working poor and uninsured people, however, health services are often difficult to come by or afford. Should you pay for a prescription or an ER visit or much-needed new glasses or buy the necessary food for the next two or three days? In Black and Brown communities, in particular, where racism, poverty, and under-employment continue to be realities of daily life, food deprivation regularly sends people into a cycle of illnesses that only make working more difficult and disability more likely.
Whether the term used is food insecurity or food inequity, the result is simple enough: hunger. And hunger has continued to be an all-American reality decade after decade, in good economies and bad, even though food should be a basic right. It’s a problem that, in possibly the world’s richest country, no one has been able to solve. Why is that?
Food is certainly plentiful in the United States. And yet enough of it never reaches the tables of those who struggle to make ends meet. Worse yet, by almost any measure, income inequality has only increased in the past 30 years. And as succinctly demonstrated by the all-too-long-ago protesters of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, high wages have been and continue to be concentrated among the top earners. In fact, as of 2019, three Americans had more wealth than the bottom 50% of American society and things have not gotten better since.
Food inequity in America
In 1969, the Black Panther Party responded to food scarcity in its communities by introducing a breakfast program for children. One aim was simply to fill their stomachs, the other to help them do well in school, since those who are hungry find it difficult to concentrate.
Having visited their Harlem Breakfast Program in New York City, I was moved then by the sense of joy in the room and the healthy food being offered, which most of the children seemed to be eating with delight. At the time, recognizing the deep-seated need for food and finding a way to meet it seemed like a revolutionary act. Unfortunately, when the political winds changed in the early 1970s, the program ended. Many children of color there once more went to school hungry as so many still do in communities across this country.
Decades later, during the Covid pandemic, the Brotherhood Sister Sol organization began providing food to people in Harlem. Once a week, boxes of it were available to anyone who came to pick them up and many did. Recognizing an emergency, that group acted to try to resolve it, something deeply appreciated by the community. Eventually, however, money and contributions ran out and the effort ended. In Harlem today, there is still hunger.
During the pandemic, at a national level, Congress acted in a significant fashion to increase the Supplemental Nutrition (SNAP) benefits to households already receiving food assistance. Effective March 1, 2023, however, depending on family size and income, the monthly allowance of an extra $95 to $200 in food stamps for tens of millions of households, a majority of which have children, ended. The loss of that extra money and so of nutritional upgrades comes at a time when inflation has sent food prices soaring. As if that weren’t bad enough, the federal law passed to provide free school lunches during the pandemic ended last year. (Pre-pandemic free lunches were offered in some schools, but not everywhere.) If the government was able to provide such free meals as well as extra food subsidies in those pandemic years, the question is (or at least should be): Why won’t it continue doing just that? After all, wealthy people ate well before and during the worst of the pandemic and will undoubtedly continue to do so.
Available food pantries and food banks gather supplies from farms, shops, and contributions. They then package and deliver them to the needy or provide places where such food can be picked up. Helpful as they are to many, though, they aren’t accessible to so many others in need. Even more important, they, too, represent temporary fixes that rise and fall in relation to the political and economic moment. Sadly, people’s food needs in this country are anything but temporary and should be assured in the same way social security (so far) is for seniors and those unable to work. That drugs like heroin and fentanyl are sometimes easier to come by in poor communities than nutritious, affordable food should be considered deeply shameful.
For a country that projects itself as the richest in the world, hunger remains hidden by design. It’s true that the United States doesn’t have the in-your-face version of malnutrition seen in countries like Somalia and Afghanistan (to name just two of the food-desperate lands in this world). Yet according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2020, more than 34 million people in this country, including nine million children, were food insecure, including 1,280,000 adults 65 or older who lived alone.
There is no Medicaid of food
Having enough food shouldn’t be a matter of charity. Food, like healthcare, should be a basic and necessary human right in a wealthy country like ours, which, of course, lacks a food version of Medicaid. Being able to put enough on the table is treated as anything but a right here. Instead, food is, at best, doled out to the needy in weekly or monthly packages, one at a time, no guarantees for the future and no midnight snacks allowed or the food will be gone before the month is up.
The irony or, better said, the tragedy of our situation is that food insecurity, no less hunger, needn’t occur, especially in a country as wealthy as ours. But to change the situation would involve altering far more than the way food is both distributed and priced. A move to greater economic equality would certainly be a starting point, since the ultimate health of a society depends on the health of its populace and a lack of adequate food on a daily basis will continue to affect all aspects of a social order that only continues to fray.
For a while now, progressive mayors and other government officials have been trying to introduce a guaranteed (or basic) annual income into their communities. At present, these are just pilot programs being tested out in various parts of the United States and Canada. They guarantee perhaps $500 to $1,000 dollars a month annually to low-income individuals and/or families. In some areas, this is run as a lottery, in others not. Individuals or families accepted into such a program receive a prepaid Mastercard once a month that allows them to buy food as needed (as well as other essentials) without going to a food bank.
Los Angeles has created one of the country’s largest basic-income pilot projects. It provides 12 no-strings-attached monthly payments of $1,000, which, unsurprisingly enough, low-income recipients report to be helpful and genuinely reassuring. However — and there always seems to be a however, doesn’t there? — these are just experimental pilot programs and so subject to the political or economic winds of the moment. The word “guaranteed,” even when used, should be considered a misnomer until the temporary becomes permanent, making it a guaranteed right like social security.
For those who presently benefit from such programs, there appears to be no downside, except of course the fear that they will end, as the SNAP program just did, returning so many impoverished Americans to their earlier level of need.
In truth, however, food equity for all should be on everyone’s political agenda, even if it is a goal that won’t be reached without a struggle. This should not be a country filled with empty tables. Unfortunately, short of a loud and continuous hue and cry from the rest of us, hunger will continue apace and only those who experience it will see its effects.
I regularly pass many homeless men and women on the streets of New York City where I live. Recently, I was stopped by a woman who held out her hand and said that she was hungry. I believed her. The homeless are the least hidden example we see of food insecurity.
Read Tom Engelhardt’s response here.