ALSO BY PARTICIPANT MEDIA
Last Call at the Oasis
Waiting for "Superman"
It's not easy for Americans to imagine tens of millions of people going to bed hungry in their rich country. The lines outside soup kitchens have grown during the recent Great Recession, but the faces of those waiting for charity food, unlike the faces of the starving in Africa, do not show hunger. In the media there are no images of famine in the poorest states. Indeed, many low-income Americans appear overweight. So hunger in the land of plenty needs its own definition.
Fifty years ago, in his book The Other America, Michael Harrington identified the nation's "invisible poor." Even though they lived "better than the medieval knights or Asian peasants," Harrington wrote, they were poor by American standards; they were denied "the minimal levels of health, food and education that our present stage of scientific knowledge specifies as necessary for life as it is now lived in the United States."1
Harrington's book shocked the nation. The media documented cases of real hunger, mostly in the South. Politicians hurriedly constructed a new safety net, including a new, more effective food stamp program. Hunger soon disappeared, at least from the front pages. But two decades later it was back—brought on by a recession and the welfare cuts of the Ronald Reagan era. A presidential commission concluded that the word hunger had "come to mean rather different things to different people." A new clinical definition favored by the medical community defined hunger as a "weakened, disordered condition brought about by a prolonged lack of food."2
Researchers trying to put together a program to take care of the problem found a lack of reliable data. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), the nation's leading hunger advocacy and lobby group, launched a series of national surveys on hunger in America. The figures were startling. They found that 4 million American children under age twelve were permanently hungry; they were missing school or falling asleep in class, tired, and often ill. Another 9.6 million were deemed to be at risk of hunger.
Anti-hunger groups used those numbers to lobby Congress to enact legislation requiring the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to collect and publish data on the extent of hunger in America. With a new questionnaire, researchers began to classify Americans as either "food-secure" or "food-insecure." Food security was defined as "access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life." At a minimum, it included the "ready availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods" and "an assured ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways (e.g. without resorting to emergency food supplies, scavenging, stealing or other coping strategies)."3
Households were then further subdivided into "food-insecure with hunger" and "food-insecure without hunger"—depending on whether the members of the household occasionally skipped proper meals and snacked on less nutritious foods or went for long periods with no food at all. True hunger was defined as severe physical discomfort or mental stress—"the uneasy or painful sensation caused by a lack of food," or "the recurrent and involuntary lack of access to food."
Today American households are characterized as having food security, low food security, or very low food security. The latest estimates from the Department of Agriculture are that 48.8 million people in America live in food-insecure households, half of them children; 46 million participate in the Food Stamp Program; and about one in four Americans participate in at least one of the domestic food and nutrition assistance programs run by the USDA.4
In describing hunger in America and thinking about how to end it, most contributors to this book have used the terms "food security" and "food insecurity," sometimes specifying high to low levels depending, again, on such factors as the number of times a month a parent eats less in order to feed his or her children, or a household's inability to buy nutritious foods because it's located in a place without grocery stores—a so-called food desert.
This book is the eighth in a series of companion volumes to documentary films produced by Participant Media on the most important social issues facing America today. It follows most closely in the footsteps of Food, Inc., which is about the nation's food production system and its impact on our health; Waiting for "Superman," which calls for radical reform of America's failing public education system, and Last Call at the Oasis, which is about Earth's imperiled water supply.
As in the previous books, this companion to A Place at the Table features essays by experts who expand on the key issues raised in the film, and following the format of the film, the book also includes personal stories of the participants—the activists as well as the victims—in America's war on hunger and obesity.
The foreword is by Jeff Bridges, the Academy Award–winning actor and longtime anti-hunger activist. He is national spokesperson of the No Kid Hungry campaign. In the introduction, the film's producers, Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush, explain how and why they decided to make the documentary.
The rest of the book is divided into four parts. Part I, "On the Front-lines of Hunger," begins with Dr. Mariana Chilton, a professor of public health, telling the story of an amazing group she founded consisting of young mothers trying to raise themselves out of poverty. She recalls how she took them to the U.S. Congress to participate in the dialogue on hunger and poverty. Pastor Bob Wilson and teacher Leslie Nichols tell their stories of distributing food to those in need in a small town in Colorado. Hunger researchers Allison Karpyn and Sarah Treuhaft examine the "food deserts" that now exist in some communities and suggest ways of eliminating them. And Tom Colicchio, the producer of the television show Top Chef, lobbies Washington politicians for increases in funding for child nutrition programs. Ken Cook, the president and cofounder of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a public-interest research and advocacy organization, writes a powerful essay explaining the shocking inequities in the new 2012 Farm Bill and its effect on America's hunger crisis.
Taking a close look at the fascinating history of food stamps, Gus Schumacher, Michel Nischan, and Daniel Bowman Simon add to our perspective on the hunger crisis by reminding us of the origins of that idealistic safety net in the New Deal era and detailing how much has changed since then—for the worse. Marion Nestle, the New York University nutritionist and acclaimed critic of the food industry, writes about the explosion of calories in our diet in today's "Eat More" environment; Jennifer Harris, of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, uncovers the new hidden persuaders of web food advertisers, and Janet Poppendieck, the New York sociologist, best-selling author, and well-known historian of poverty and hunger in America, presents overwhelming arguments for school lunch reform.
Part II focuses on those who provide food for the hungry: Matt Knott, CEO of Feeding America, the nation's largest food bank charity, explains the origins and work of that organization; David Beckmann, the Lutheran minister and head of Bread for the World, and Sarah Newman, the chief researcher on A Place at the Table, write about the intersection of faith and feeding the hungry; and Sharon Thornberry tells her personal story of how and why she became a senior manager at the Oregon Food Bank, America's first statewide food bank. Scott Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, and his director of communications, Josh Getlin, suggest what local government can do to help the food-insecure, and Andy Fisher, a veteran activist in community food projects, argues that we must get off what he calls the "anti-hunger treadmill"—the charity-based emergency feeding program and its ties to the food industry.
In Part III, three well-known and widely published anti-hunger activists, Bill Shore, Joel Berg, and Robert Egger, suggest bold and diverse strategies for solving the problem that go "Beyond Feeding the Hungry."
Finally, in Part IV, as in other Participant Media books, steps are offered that you can take as a consumer and a citizen to help end hunger in America. It starts with Kelly Meyer's inspiring story of how she became involved as an accidental activist in hunger in America. Then the Food Research and Action Center presents its seven-step plan for ending child hunger by 2015. The FRAC program is followed by a directory of NGOs through which you can become involved nationally, regionally, or locally.
We hope you will follow the lead of Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush, the producers of A Place at the Table, their colleagues at Participant Media, their publishing partners at PublicAffairs, and the committed authors who contributed to this book in seeking solutions to the plight of the poor and the hungry in America. However we label hunger today, to have almost 50 million citizens uncertain where their next meal is coming from or wondering whether they can afford to buy food for the day is unacceptable in a society so rich and productive as ours. As Jeff Bridges writes in his foreword, "We can't be bystanders. We can't be okay with this situation. We can't be missing."
New York, September 2012
Peter Pringle is the author and coauthor of ten books on science and politics, including the New York Times Notable Book Food, Inc. ; the best-selling Those Are Real Bullets: Bloody Sunday, Derry, 1972; and a mystery-thriller about food and patents, Day of the Dandelion. His latest book is Experiment Eleven: Dark Secrets Behind the Discovery of a Wonder Drug. For thirty years, he was a foreign correspondent for British newspapers. He lives in New York City.
The Missing Element
Like most Americans, I have never personally been at risk of hunger. But also like many Americans, I am very disturbed to see a growing number of Americans, especially children, face hunger as an uninvited visitor every day.
In the 1980s, I learned that more people were working than ever before, but even then millions of Americans were hungry or didn't know where their next meal was coming from. Public charities and food banks were doing more than ever before, but they couldn't keep up with the growing need. Charity is an important provider of emergency assistance, but it is not a way to feed a nation. We don't protect our national security through charity, and we shouldn't protect our families that way either.
What could be more important for our nation than finding a solution to this important problem with such an impact on our future? If another country was doing this to our children, we'd be at war. As Americans, we have stepped up to many challenges: fought tyranny, landed on the moon, put a stop to polio, and built the most prosperous nation in history. We can do stuff, really well. And we already have the knowledge and infrastructure to ensure that no family—no child—ever goes hungry in this country. But we haven't done it. So what's missing?
Here's what I've learned: First, the political will to end hunger is missing. We need to make ending hunger important enough that our political leaders get the message from us, powerfully, and start acting accordingly or they don't get reelected. Second, dissatisfaction is missing. Humans have an amazing ability to absorb bad news, adjust to disabilities, and "get along" in less-than-ideal situations. We can't "get used" to having persistent child hunger as part of the American experience. Third, I was missing. Each of us has a unique ability to make a difference, to make our world a better place because we were there. Like everyone else, I could do things and I know people. As an actor, I could do Hollywood things, attract media, and bring attention to the issue. But everyone has unique talents, skills, and relationships that can make a difference in ending hunger. The challenge is always moving from "I could do. . . . " to "I will do. . . . " Making that step was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.
I cofounded the End Hunger Network to help focus the power of the media on hunger. In 1985 we helped produce the historic Live Aid concert, and we went on to create a number of programs that engaged the music, prime-time television, and video industries in creative initiatives that brought wide public attention to the issue of hunger.
In 1996 we produced Hidden in America, a dramatic film that tells the story of one family's struggle with hunger. My brother Beau played the lead role of a recently unemployed father who finds himself jobless, uninsured, and barely able to feed his family. As part of his preparation for his role, Beau tried to apply for food stamps. No one recognized him as he was shuffled for hours from one line to another. He could imagine someone in that position saying, "Oh God, I don't want to do this. I'd rather go out and beg."
But sixteen years later, the movie is just as relevant as the day we made it. Hunger is once again "hidden in America." Even though hunger seems to be a factor for an increasing number of families these days, it's largely an invisible epidemic.
Over the years I've been fortunate to meet many hungry families. The malnourished parent may be the cashier at your supermarket who isn't earning much, has three kids at home, and faces difficult choices every night. It may be the child with her head down on her desk in school . . . with her body in the classroom but her mind elsewhere, even if she's missed only one or two meals.
These are our neighbors, struggling in a fight just to survive. Many of them are living in our own neighborhoods and may never have had to face hunger before. But they shouldn't fight alone. We can't be bystanders. We can't be okay with this situation. We can't be missing.
Victor Hugo wrote: "Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come." Ending hunger's time has come. You have a voice and a vote, and you can help make it happen.
Jeff Bridges is an Academy Award–winning actor and father of three daughters. He is national spokesperson of the No Kid Hungry campaign (www.nokidhungry.org).
A Place at the Table
AND LORI SILVERBUSH
In the summer of 2006, Lori Silverbush, the New York writer-director, released her first feature film, about the lives of young girls in juvenile detention. While making the film, Lori mentored a twelve-year-old girl who had problems in school and kept falling asleep in class. One day the principal of the school called to say he had found the young girl foraging in the trash—for food. Lori learned that part of the girl's problem was that she was not getting enough to eat. She was one of the 17 million kids in America who face what the government calls "food insecurity": they are at risk each day, not from drugs or family abuse, but from their family's inability to buy enough food so that they can have an active, healthy life.
Lori teamed up with Kristi Jacobson, an award-winning documentary filmmaker who has immersed herself in challenging subjects and deeply human stories. Lori and Kristi quickly found that hunger in America is not confined to children, and that it is not necessarily found only in the places they had assumed. Food insecurity affects one in six of the U.S. population—and since the recession of 2008 the problem has gotten worse.
Together, Lori and Kristi spent the next two years crisscrossing America, researching and filming. The result is the first full-length documentary about hunger in America in a generation. This is their story of how they made the film.
We cast a wide net. We met people in government agencies, charity workers, religious leaders, doctors, advocates, frontline fighters, all engaged in a massive, mostly hidden war on hunger, distributing food to the young, the middle-aged, and the old, in rural communities, downtrodden inner cities, and leafy suburbs across America. We visited food pantries and food banks. We saw millions of pounds of canned and packaged food, the surpluses and seconds of our nation's corporate food producers, being trucked to food banks and pantries. Yet despite this, there are still 49 million people who end the day lacking the nutrition necessary to keep their bodies and minds functioning well enough to cope and thrive. Some are so badly in need of nutritious food—the kind American farmers are known for the world over—that they are unhealthy, suffering from the nation's most prevalent, and devastating, modern disease: obesity.
Over the two years it took to make the film, we were constantly surprised by the extraordinary dedication of those who work to fight hunger. They inspired us to tell their stories. Early in our research, we were fortunate to meet Dr. Mariana Chilton, a public health professor, who was often asked to appear before congressional committees in Washington as an expert witness on the health problems of the hungry. The more appearances she made, the more she felt that the politicians were not really listening: to them, she was just another talking head from the medical community. So Chilton turned to activism, founding the organization Witnesses to Hunger. Recognizing that we are a nation where policies for the poor are decided without their participation, she distributed digital cameras to forty mothers in North Philadelphia and asked them to document their struggle to feed their families. This simple act would have profound implications, giving the women a voice that has since become part of the national dialogue about hunger. As filmmakers, we were inspired to follow Dr. Chilton's example in the making of our own film—to let the victims of hunger speak for themselves.
It was through Dr. Chilton that we met Barbie Izquierdo, a spirited single mother of two, who became the film's first protagonist. We found Barbie caught in a welfare trap that is well known to those in her world, but which we found shocking. She was one of the 49 million Americans whose lack of income qualified her for food stamps to help feed her family. She could have remained a welfare mom, but every day she looked for a job, trying to climb out of poverty. Her efforts and her anti-hunger advocacy paid off with a job at the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. Her new job left her, however, facing a new, devastating reality: with an income that was insufficient to provide nutritious food for her children but too high to qualify for food stamps, she was less capable of feeding her family than before.
To document the extent and range of the hunger problem we visited not only inner cities like Philadelphia but also small towns. One was Collbran, Colorado, a quaint, proud cattle ranching community of a thousand people nestled in a valley in the Rocky Mountains—the kind of place where people look out for each other. When we arrived there in the summer of 2010, virtually everyone in town was feeling the impact of food insecurity in some way. The local pastor explained that the problem had spiraled in recent years: even two-income families were relying on his church's weekly communal meal and after-school feeding program for children. The police chief and a fiercely independent cattle rancher told us how they visited the church's food pantry or used the after-school children's meal program to make it each month.
In Collbran, we met Leslie Nichols, a fifth-grade teacher who delivered bags of charity food throughout the community in her spare time. And it was here we met ten-year-old Rosie, who said she often found it hard to fall asleep at night because of the hunger pains in her stomach. Her daily struggles to focus and stay engaged at school were further testimony to what it means to be a food-insecure child in America today.
In Jonestown, Mississippi, a sultry Delta town with two thousand people, we confronted the phenomenon of "food deserts"—places where residents must travel a mile or more in a city, and still greater distances in rural areas, to buy fresh meat, dairy products, and vegetables. Often found in the middle of America's industrial farmland—where just a generation ago people farmed and ate off the land—these food deserts are a true obstacle for the many people without access to transportation or sufficient income for gas. The federal government estimates that 23.5 million people live in a food desert. One of them is Ree Harris, a short-order cook at Uptown Brown's, Jonestown's only restaurant. She told us that the nearest supermarket to Jonestown was a forty-five-minute drive—each way. On a good day, she said, Jonestown's store might have a banana or two for sale, at a price she could afford.
Everywhere we went, the most affordable and plentiful options seemed to be fast food and packaged processed food, the building blocks of an unhealthy diet. We couldn't help but ask ourselves: why does a cheeseburger—whose multiple ingredients must be processed, cooked, packaged, marketed, and advertised—cost less than a fresh peach? The answer is so tightly wrapped up in government farm policy, political horse-trading in Congress, commercial interests, and misguided social planning that unraveling it is more than the media is generally willing to take on, and certainly more than the average voter is able to comprehend without help.
We were witnesses to the shameful way in which America treats its most vulnerable. The grim statistics and the shocking events we were confronting led us to consult the experts—on agriculture, health, nutrition, and social planning. These experts pointed to the link between the preferential policies enjoyed by big agriculture and the nation's hunger and obesity crisis. We learned that agricultural policy had been forged with the intention of helping farmers weather the dust bowl and Great Depression of the 1930s, but had evolved into an entitlement system, with unforeseen and tragic consequences. As Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group says in our film, "Most of that subsidy money, about 70 percent of it, has gone to just 10 percent of those beneficiaries. The biggest, largest, best capitalized farms. They're hauling in this taxpayer money." And yet Americans are being told we have insufficient resources to make school meals nutritious or to provide an adequate safety net so that everyone can eat.
We saw firsthand the efforts of the food banks and other charity-run agencies that now distribute food to the poor as a result of the decades-long shift of responsibility from the government to the private sector. Although food banks and soup kitchens provide invaluable help to people in need, the ever-growing numbers of hungry people indicate that charities clearly are not providing a long-term solution. If our goal is to eliminate hunger, malnutrition, and obesity in America, then we need to take action on the larger systemic problems that have caused them in the first place.
Janet Poppendieck, a noted author and professor of sociology at Hunter College in New York, says in the film that our charity model has evolved into a highly efficient and sophisticated "secondary food system for the poor." She comes to the conclusion in her seminal book Sweet Charity that major players in the corporate food world—among the most generous donors to food banks—are more interested in the "halo effect" of their charitable donations than in truly ending hunger. And that is how it seemed to us. The big food companies, which ultimately benefit from our flawed food system and the unlivable wages that compel people to turn to charity, lobby intensively in Washington to maintain the status quo. By donating their surplus food to charities, corporations manage to avoid substantial dumping fees while earning big tax write-offs—and at the same time, they can brag about their philanthropic work.
Millions of ordinary Americans are being encouraged to donate cans of food and volunteer their time at food pantries, believing that these efforts will make a significant difference in ending hunger. A food bank employee quietly confided that canned food drives and volunteer days are more valuable as public relations gambits than as anti-hunger measures. The real business of food banking involves trained warehouse employees, scanning systems, and trucking companies to move millions of pounds of surplus corporate food. Nevertheless, she explained, can drives are useful: they make people feel good and get them engaged in the issue.
People may be engaged, but we couldn't help asking ourselves—to what end? If the majority of Americans with a desire to help are being led to believe that they can fix hunger with a few cans of food, is that true engagement? Is the current charity model allowing us to assuage our consciences without asking the really hard questions? Why, in a nation that has the means to feed everyone well and plentifully, are 49 million people not getting enough to eat?
Over the next two years we dared to imagine a system in which food banks become obsolete. If federal agricultural subsidies went toward fruits and vegetables rather than overproduced commodities, would that peach be cheaper than the cheeseburger? Could the substantial expertise of food bankers and the pioneering efforts of community food activists be marshaled to help set up local and regional systems of delivery to food deserts? Could we explore community-based growing solutions through public funding rather than rely on the quixotic arm of charity? If we were to modernize highly effective programs like food stamps and base them on the reality of need, not the punitive and outdated current method, parents like Barbie, we imagined, could focus their considerable energies on parenting, studying, and their family's upward mobility rather than the draining and demoralizing daily quest for food.