Growing up poor in Philadelphia, I know firsthand the stigma of paying with food stamps at the grocery store. When my mother sent me out with the flimsy booklets to pick up milk or bread I would invariably run into a classmate and stall, unconvincingly, until the left they store and I could pay for my items furtively. I would rather go hungry than pay for food with food stamps in front of my friends. Last week the New York Times reported that in the midst of this recession, fully one-eighth of American adults and one fourth of American children are enrolled in the SNAP (formerly food stamps) government entitlement program. However, as a student of food, I now know that so much food is produced worldwide that there is no reason for the poor to be stigmatized or to go hungry.
When we talk about hunger abroad, we talk about famines caused by dictators and natural disasters, and often fail to address the root of the problem: poverty. Here in the United States, it is common to assumer hunger and poverty are linked to laziness or some kind of moral defect- hence the shame in being identified as a food stamp user. However, this recession is removing the stigma from hunger and poverty, with many formerly solvent American families living near the poverty level now collecting benefits.
The stigma of food stamp use may be fading, but the stigma of asking a neighbor or church for food still exists, and no one should need to choose between rent and food or medication. Here in the USA we have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness but no real entitlement to adequate nutrition. SNAP benefits were not designed to meet all the food needs of the poverty stricken, but the supplement them.
In Belo Horizonte, the fourth largest city in a Brazil, the citizens were once plagued by poverty and hunger. Now the government regulates prices and subsidizes fruits and vegetables so that everyone pays uniform low prices. Poverty and hunger have decreased while jobs for farmers have been secured.
We can eradicate the stigma from food assistance and private charity centered on providing food by making healthy food inexpensive and accessible to all our citizens. We don’t need to grow corn and soy to feed animals when our farmland could be used to grow grain for the poor and hungry. The grain will be less expensive than meat and better for a population plagued by lifestyle related diseases like diabetes and heart disease.
Regional foodsheds will function to provide fresh local food to their respective communities. We need to subsidize diverse farms that grow produce and not monocultures focused on producing animal fodder. The percentage of meat in our diet and dairy in our diets need to go way down. We already have more than enough food to feed the world: we just need to learn how to manage it.