Monday, May 3, 2010

All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America by Joel Berg

Mr. Berg served eight years in the Department of Agriculture during the Clinton administration. His most relevant role was as leader of the Community Food Security Initiative, an effort that George Bush terminated when he took office. Joel Berg is currently the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.

Despite the glib title and uninspired artwork on the book cover, All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America, was a serious and well-constructed effort to describe the extent of hunger in our country, and to detail the ramifications of “food insecurity” for both those suffering from it and for society as a whole. The author tells the reader exactly where he is heading on the very first page: “...this book argues that only government has the size, scope, resources — and yes, the legitimacy — to take the lead in actually solving the problem. And make no mistake: Government can solve the problem.” The beginning of the book focuses on defining the extent of the problem of hunger, euphemistically referred to as “food insecurity” by the government. The remainder is devoted to justifying this thesis. The final section includes the author’s plan for eliminating food insecurity. Berg also includes two appendices, one providing a list of activist organizations, the other provided advice on how to be a successful activist.

There was much to learn from this work. The author provides an interesting history of hunger in the USA, implying that many of our attitudes toward the problem are derived from our British-oriented heritage. He states that the USA and Great Britain have in common very high levels of inequality, and very high levels of child poverty, more than one observes in most advanced countries. He attributes this to a form of social Darwinism which allows one to view hunger as an unavoidable fact of life rather than addressing the issue as a solvable problem. He states: “America has been tricked into thinking that these problems can’t be solved and that the best we can hope for is for private charities to make the suffering marginally less severe.” Berg provides a detailed description of the evolution of the government’s intervention in providing food for the needy. His basic conclusion is that the safety net society provides is sufficient to keep people from starving, but is not sufficient to provide security and to allow recipients to function effectively in society. A number of interesting historical tidbits are revealed along the way. For example:
  • during the depression when large numbers of people were actually starving, the nation was awash in farm output, but the notion of the government buying the food and distributing it to the needy was too advanced a concept at the time, 
  • the national school lunch program was developed during World War II because recruits were emerging from the depression so malnourished that they could not immediately function as soldiers, 
  • a government study accused the state of Mississippi of purposely trying to starve African Americans in order to drive them out of the state.
The real key to eliminating food insecurity is to eliminate poverty. The author expends much space to what he refers to as the “poverty trap.” This was one of the best and most informative sections of the book. He points out that you cannot get out of poverty unless you are able to accumulate savings. However if you accumulate savings then you lose your eligibility for government support. Another undesirable consequence of “means testing” is that it becomes complex and time consuming to apply for assistance. So much so that many eligible people do not gain access to the support, and many of those that do, eventually lose it through bureaucratic errors. Many of the recipients of food support are employed, but in jobs that do not pay a living wage. The provision of jobs that pay enough for a person to support minimal needs without external assistance should be, and must be, one of society’s goals. The author describes how hard it is to survive on the food stamp allotment, let alone eat healthy foods. A good discussion is provided of the tie between poverty/hunger and obesity/malnutrition. Berg points out a number of less well-known tribulations of living in impoverished areas. Supermarkets with competitive prices and abundant supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables are not likely to be found where people have little money to spend. The simplest financial transactions are either unavailable or very expensive for the poor. People in impoverished areas lack the social capital that could provide a network of friends and connections and guidance on simple things like how to approach a job interview.

The author views charitable activities in the area of food distribution as a mixed blessing. While the effort is certainly well-intentioned, it often has the effect of diverting attention from what is really needed, which is a coordinated, guaranteed government anti-poverty program. He further points out that the overhead in running a charitable effort is often much higher than it would be for an equivalent government program. In fact, most of the food distributed by charities comes from the government, either directly or indirectly through tax write-offs.

In summary, the author quotes a figure of about 35 million people who experience a significant level of food insecurity in the course of a year. Of these, about 11 million suffered from hunger or very low food security for extensive periods during the year. Studies are cited which support ties between hunger and increased health care costs, reduced productivity, and diminished educational performance. All of these factors represent a cost which the country must ultimately bear for neglecting to care for its citizens. Berg estimates that an additional $24B annual increase in food purchasing power could eliminate the issue of food insecurity if it was properly distributed. In the grand scheme of things, this does not seem like a large amount of money. The costs of inaction are undoubtedly higher.

The author did a good job in presenting a complex problem and placing it in its historic and political context. His style was rather informal and heavily anecdotal, producing text that was quite easy to read. A bit of judicious editing could have produced a volume that was significantly shorter, but just as effective.

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