In a time and place where people vigorously debate the relative merits of different cultivars of apples, varieties of cheese, and roasts of coffee, it can be easy to forget about hunger. Food riots may have rocked 30 countries around the world last year, but even in a troubled economy, most Americans have little experience with the stomach-hollowing, brain-numbing, panic-inducing hunger that sends people to the streets.
Yet hunger is increasing—and not just in sub-Saharan Africa. There are about 963 million hungry people on Earth, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and 35 million of them are here in the United States. All told, 12 percent of the U.S. population—including 16 percent of American children—don’t get enough to eat.
“Hunger is not an equal-opportunity problem,” says Greg Baker, director of Santa Clara University’s Food & Agribusiness Institute. Instead, he explains, it’s concentrated in certain regions, particularly the South, and among certain populations, particularly African-Americans and Latinos. And while we associate hunger with starvation’s distended bellies and hollow eyes, hunger in the United States typically manifests as skipped meals or lower-quality food.
As the economy continues to tank, more and more people are learning firsthand what hunger means. SCU alumnus Joe Pert ’77, senior manager with Basic American Foods and a board-member of Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, says the numbers defy anything he’s experienced in 15 years. “When I started hanging with the food bank in 1994, we were feeding 110,000 people a month,” he says. “Since July 2008, we’ve served 200,000 people each month. Sixty-seven percent are families with dependent children. During the final 6 months of 2008, we experienced a 45 percent increase in the number of calls for food assistance.”
Many of those calls are from first-time customers; some are former volunteers. Their incomes might render them ineligible for public assistance, but their expenses leave them unsure of how to get through the month.
“A gentleman e-mailed us—he’s been laid off for nine months,” recounts Cindy McCown, senior director of programs and services at the Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties. “His wife works, and their net income is $4,100 month. That’s a pretty good income. But their mortgage is $4,000. Do the math and you can see why he’s in this situation. He’s got two college-age kids and a high schooler. He’s mad. He thought he’d be eligible for food stamps. He thought there would be a safety net.”
At the same time the economy has left more people without means to pay bills, a combination of other factors has raised the cost of eating. Global food prices rose 28 percent between October 2006 and October 2008, according to the UNFAO, with spikes in the first half of last year that raised wheat prices as much as 130 percent. The causes of that spike are still being debated. As real estate grew too risky, world investment went into commodities, driving up the price of everything from oil to grain. The oil spike doubled the price of fertilizer and tripled the cost of transportation. Then there was the weather. Australia’s six-year drought wiped out 98 percent of a rice crop that can usually feed 40 million people a day. A prolonged drought nearly destroyed half of China’s winter wheat (it was saved by a massive investment in irrigation). Most experts predict more crop failures as the planet warms.
“The rule of thumb is that each one degree rise in temperature means that crop yields drop by 10 percent,” says Janet Larsen, Director of Research at the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.
At the same time, demand is rising: The world population is growing by 70 million a year, and billions of people whose diets were mostly vegetarian are climbing up the food chain, eating American-style diets heavy on meat and dairy. Ethanol production is also competing for grain, with 28 percent of U.S. soy and corn going to fuel production. The causative link between biofuels and food prices remains murky, with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) attributing 5 to 20 percent of last year’s price spike to ethanol, and the World Bank giving ethanol 75 percent of the blame, but it’s clear that biofuels at least deserve a place on the contributors list. Meanwhile, the green revolution has worn itself out as the world’s soils grow increasingly depleted. Agricultural productivity has grown 2.3 percent a year since 1961, but it is expected to grow only 1.5 percent a year between now and 2030, with growth continuing to taper off from there.
“A harmonic convergence of negative forces have conspired to sock it to us for trying to feed a hungry planet,” says Eric Schockman, president of MAZON, a Los Angeles-based Jewish anti-hunger organization. (Schockman was on campus last fall to participate in a forum on hunger issues.) So what can be done?
I asked 12 people who work in agriculture, economics, public policy, ecology, and related fields for their ideas about ending hunger in the United States and elsewhere. Suggestions range from the sweeping to the arcane, from reimagining agriculture to tweaking the U.S. tax code. Some suggestions contradict one another; for every person who sees genetically modified crops as the solution, there is someone else who sees them as the problem. But there is far more agreement than disagreement, and in the end, six clear themes emerge, with plenty of interconnection. What follows are six suggestions for ending hunger. It won’t be easy, but it’s not impossible. Sometimes it’s just a matter of knowing where to start.
Tallying up the threats to the food supply—declining productivity, dwindling oil supplies, competition from biofuels, global warming—is a useful exercise only if it points us to the right solutions. No doubt feeding the world in the long term requires us to stabilize the climate, develop sustainable agricultural systems, and put grain in people’s mouths rather than using it for fuel. But during the last 20 years, world food production has increased by more than 2 percent a year, while global population has grown by only 1.14 percent. For the moment, there’s still plenty of food to go around.
“There’s self-interest in promoting the view that the way help starving people in Africa is to help American farmers produce more food,” argues Michael Kevane, chair and associate professor of economics at SCU. “Or you get the argument that ethanol programs hurt people in Africa. The reality is that the level of food produced in the world is more than adequate to meet the nutritional needs of every person on Earth. People are hungry because they don’t have enough purchasing power to purchase the food that’s available.”
Drew Starbird ’84, interim dean of the Leavey School of Business and former board member of the Second Harvest Food Bank, agrees. “We have a lot of problems getting people enough food,” he says. “Production is not one of them.”
Fighting hunger, in other words, is really about fighting poverty. It’s also a matter of feeding the grain that we produce to people, not livestock. “If you can have more of the world enjoy fresh fruit and vegetables and grain, you’d have three to 10 times as much grain available to feed the world,” observes SCU Professor of Biology Bill Eisinger.
It’s no secret that America has become the land of the fat: 142 million American adults and 9 million children are overweight or obese. But what we tend not understand is that obesity is often a symptom of malnourishment. It costs about 22 percent more to fill a supermarket basket with fresh, nutritious food than with sugar- and salt-laden processed foods.
Poor people are more likely to live in neighborhoods where there are convenience stores but no supermarkets, and they are less likely to have a car that will get them to a grocery store with a produce aisle. People who work multiple jobs often don’t have time to cook, so they catch meals on the fly at the nearest fast food place. In those circumstances, says Greg Baker, “purchasing inexpensive foods that contain empty calories makes sense. In the short run, it alleviates hunger and tastes great. In the long run, however, poor nutrition can lead to obesity and a variety of health problems. This represents a particularly tough problem for those working to alleviate hunger. When faced with a limited amount of resources, is it better to reduce hunger or provide nutritious foods? Because the cheapest calories are less expensive than the healthiest calories, addressing the hunger problem often means doing so at the expense of nutrition and vice-versa.”
The fact that poor people are often getting too much and too little food simultaneously has led to a certain amount of introspection for agencies who deliver food or food benefits. “Is it our moral responsibility just to fill up people’s stomachs?” asks MAZON’s Eric Schockman. Collectively, Schockman says, Americans have focused on quantity over quality when dealing with hunger. “I’ve sat in food banks when the letter carriers drop off a lot of tonnage [after a canned food drive],” he adds. “A third of it goes into the waste bin. Nutritionally, it won’t feed people.”
Thinking about obesity as part of the hunger problem means educating everyone from food-bank clients to food-industry donors about what constitutes healthy food. At Schockman’s organization, they mark food donations as they come in with simple color-coded labels indicating which foods are healthier.
At Second Harvest, two staff nutritionists evaluate the nutritional content of food donations and conduct workshops to educate clients, volunteers, and staff about what makes a healthy meal. “We’ve seen a huge increase in the number of children that have major dental decay,” says Cindy McCown. “So it’s important to help parents understand why you wouldn’t put sugared drinks or juice into a bottle.” When unfamiliar foods like winter squash show up in the organization’s grocery bags, they will be accompanied by a simple recipe for preparing it, along with an explanation of the nutritional benefits.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has said that he wants to put “nutrition at the center of all food assistance programs.” The 2008 farm bill contained $20 million for a pilot program that would look at ways to encourage food stamp recipients to buy healthier foods, perhaps by coding Electronic Benefit Transfer cards so that food stamp allowances go fUrther if they are spent on fresh produce. For that to work, though, policy makers will have to find ways to lure supermarkets and farmers markets into more poor neighborhoods.
More than 12 million American children live in households that are “food insecure,” which means that they can’t count on getting enough to eat. The repercussions of that hunger are enormous: Hungry kids have trouble paying attention in school; they are more likely to get into trouble; and they are more prone to health problems.
For those kids who participate, the federal free and reduced-lunch program does a pretty good job of combating hunger. “If you eat breakfast and lunch at school, you can get over half the calories you need,” says Ken Hecht of California Food Policy Advocates. The trick is making sure that kids participate, particularly in the breakfast program. Often the school bus doesn’t arrive in time for a pre-class trip to the cafeteria, and when it does, kids tend to be reluctant to leave the playground to get a meal.
One solution is to offer breakfast in the classroom, during the first period. Another idea is to offer a “second-chance breakfast” about an hour into the school day.
If the first step is to increase participation, the second is to increase quality. The federal government pays $2.57 a head to feed the poorest kids in a school, and a mere 24 cents for the wealthier ones. Many schools don’t have kitchens or the staff to cook in them, so they rely on heat-and-serve fare like pizza, fries, and chicken nuggets. Increasing investment in the national school lunch program would go a long way toward changing that.
But it isn’t just in the United States that school lunch programs can fight hunger. Michael Kevane observes that in an African village, similar programs could be very effective—at low cost. “We should make sure that every kid in every village school in Africa is getting at least one meal provided at that school,” he says. That approach is being used by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and Catholic Relief Services. Last year the two organizations provided lunch to 15,000 students at 22 schools in western Darfur, and similar programs are at work in nations as diverse as Burkina Faso, Yemen, Columbia, and Afghanistan. Those who work in these programs say that providing food— and sometimes take-home rations like cooking oil—encourages families to send their children, particularly their daughters, to school. “School feeding is one of the most reliable ways to ensure development in developing countries,” explains Gon Myers, of the UNWFP in Chad, where the malnutrition rate is more than 45 percent in the regions where lunch programs are provided. “It reduces hunger, violence, and poverty, and achieves gender equality and universal primary education.”
Thirty-one million Americans received food stamps in February. But at least as many Americans who were eligible didn’t receive food stamps. Why? The application process is so intimidating that many eligible families don’t bother applying. Not only are the forms hard to figure out, but the application requires an in-person interview at a government office—difficult to achieve if you have a daytime job or don’t have transportation. Many families have concluded that the benefit of the food aid isn’t worth the time required to get it.
Hunger activists would like to see that calculation recalibrated. One simple way to do that would be to have a single application form for the different federal poverty programs like food stamps, welfare, school lunch, and the Women, Infants, and Children program. “We don’t need a separate application for all the different programs,” says Second Harvest’s Cindy McCown. “It’s daunting for the providers; it’s daunting for the families. We’re having people fall through the cracks.”
Drew Starbird agrees. “The food bank, which is a food distribution program, has its own program designed just to sign people for food stamps,” he says. “We have people whose job it is to help people get through the application. Those are resources the food bank could use elsewhere if the application process were more straightforward.”
Consider these three statistics:
- Almost as much U.S. land is used to grow corn for high-fructose corn syrup as is used to grow vegetables.
- Forty to 50 percent of all food grown in the United States is thrown away uneaten by the farmer, the distributor, or the consumer.
- The largest concentration of hungry people in the state of California is in the Central Valley, one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world.
In other words, as a nation, we grow food that doesn’t nourish, throw away food that does nourish, and allow people to go hungry even when they are surrounded by food. We can change that dynamic if we reconnect farms to the communities around them—not just because eating locally is better for the environment, but also because eating locally is better for both farmers and consumers. A two-year USDA-funded study in California looked at the potential impact of connecting small and midsized farms with the more than 21,000 educational and health-care institutions that provide daily meals. While a large hospital, which benefits from discounted pricing, might pay as much as 25 percent more for local, sustainably-grown produce, a large college campus would pay 14 percent less. At the same time, researchers say, when institutions buy produce directly from farmers, they give farmers a guaranteed income and provide a healthier diets for students and patients. Already, about 100 California schools participate in a Farm-to-School program coordinated by the Community Alliance with Family Farmers. One quarter of California colleges—including SCU—have a local food program, and another 25 percent are developing one.
A different tack is being taken by Sharon Gruber, the nutrition consultant at the Bread for the City food pantry in Washington, D.C. Casting about for a source of low cost fruits and vegetables to stock her clients’ grocery bags, Gruber began calling local farmers to see if they had extra produce to donate. “It became very apparent very quickly that there are literally hundreds of tons of food that we could use that are going to waste every day,” Gruber says. That includes both crops left in the field after the harvest, and produce that doesn’t meet grocery store specifications due to minor cosmetic defects. One farmer told Gruber that in the D.C.–Philadelphia region alone, there are 100 tractor trailers each day carrying produce that has been rejected by a supermarket. Of those, only about half find their way to people who need it. The rest is dumped.
“We’re talking tractor-trailers full of stuff!” Gruber exclaims. “We’re the largest food pantry in D.C., and if we took all the food that’s being wasted, we would not be able to handle it all.”
In 2006, the California Association of Food Banks launched a program designed to deliver fruits and vegetables that would otherwise be Dumpster-bound to food banks that could use them. A year later, they were distributing 38 million pounds of 38 different kinds of produce to 45 California food banks. Food banks tell the program how many trucks of produce they can use, and the food is delivered directly to them at the fraction of the retail price. “We have a huge amount of fresh produce that’s coming to us,” Cindy McCown says proudly. “Over 45 percent of what we distribute is fresh fruits and vegetables.”
In 1944, more than 40 percent of the vegetables consumed in the United States were produced in victory gardens. In fact, says Patrick Archie, director of Campus and Community Programs for SCU’s Environmental Studies Institute, this may be the first national crisis that hasn’t led to the government asking the citizens to plant a garden—although Michele Obama’s decision to plant a vegetable garden on the South Lawn of the White House has drawn a great deal of attention. While Mrs. Obama has yet to ask the nation to follow in her footsteps, seed sales are already up 14 percent this year, a sign that in recessionary times, people may not need government urging to turn to the soil for sustenance.
“Whenever we have times of economic crisis, we have food production in the cities,” Archie says. “In World War I, they were called liberty gardens. In the Depression, they were called relief gardens.” During the depression of 1893-97, they were called “Pingree’s Potato Patches,” after the mayor of Detroit, Hazen Pingree, asked the owners of vacant lots to allow the unemployed to use them for growing vegetables.
Community gardens are found in some areas. Archie is developing a half-acre community garden on the SCU campus. He wants that garden to go viral—training students about gardening so that they can go out in teams and help schools and community organizations plant their own. He has a mapping program that tracks which San Jose schools have gardens, and correlates that with ethnicity, test scores, and other indicators. Most schools, he says, have enough space for at least a small garden plot. What is lacking, often, is knowledge. “Most people don’t know how to grow plants and how to care for soil,” Archie says. “That knowledge has been lost in just a couple of generations.”
Community gardens are one simple way to help more people grow fruits and vegetables that they can eat. But there’s more to it than that. “Gardens are a wonderful way of bringing people together across all boundaries,” Archie says. “If you’ve ever grown a garden, you know you can’t eat it all. You have tomatoes and zucchini coming out of your ears. You end up sharing. And one of the beautiful traditions in all cultures is the sharing of food.”
Dashka Slater is a freelance writer in Oakland. Her previous feature for SCM was “Delivering the goods” (Summer 2007).