A hungry man is not a free man
“A hungry man is not a free man” ~Adelai Stevenson, former U.S. Ambassador to the UN.
Twenty million hungry mouths in America isn’t cool. Do you know what’s even less cool? Forty million hungry in the US — and more than 2 billion worldwide. But, do you know what’s the least cool? Food insecurity has actually increased faster in the US than rest of the developed world. The plain fact is that food stamps enrollment in the US has more than doubled in the past decade — soaring almost 60 percent just in the past 3 years. (I’ll let the figure tell the uncool story.)
Growing up in Nebraska, I once knew a child who wore mostly clothes donated from charities and ate free school lunches (well at first, he took ‘five-finger-discounts’ in lunch lines until the school caught up and enrolled him in the federal school lunch program). But, more profoundly — his family’s dinner very often relied on the luck of a next door restaurant every night after closing time, and the chance of collecting any leftover pizzas being discarded for the trash. It left an indelible memory.
Why do I bring up this story? First, because this Saturday, May 14 is the annual Stamp Out Hunger food drive, the large annual food collection led by postal workers around the country. As an aside, Campbell’s Soup, a co-sponsor, is also pitching in up to one million pounds of food for every person who supports Stamp Out Hunger on Facebook Causes. Do some good while you’re browsing Facebook for once.
However, as important as these necessary food drives are — are they sufficient? Between economic downturn years 2008-2009 and 2009-2010, there were only 1 percent and 5 percent increases in food drive donations. All the while, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP – food stamps) average monthly enrollment dramatically increased from 28.2 million to 33.5 million to 40.3 million – 18.7 percent and 42.8 percent increases, respectively, during those same years. In addition to SNAP enrollments, the number of households using food pantries also rose by 44 percent from 3.9 to 5.6 million households roughly during that same period. Moreover, among married-couple families, food pantry assistance rose even more by 66 percent — indeed, half of all USDA food stamps programs benefited households with children. Overall, these SNAP numbers are surpassing all expectations. The latest February 2011 month data showed SNAP enrollment topping 44.2 million individuals, a 57 percent increase above 2008 (and a 63.4 percent increase by number of households). All in all, percentage of Americans on food stamps today is higher than ever before.
As hunger and food insecurity rise, unfortunately so do the costs — more than $68.3 billion was spent on SNAP in 2010, with a total of $92.8 billion for all USDA food assistance programs annually. Some conservatives may suggest that food stamps and other programs are another form of excess entitlement spending, arguing that food stamps are akin to ‘wasteful and perverse’ unemployment benefits and equating them to mere hand-outs. To such arguments, I strongly disagree and say they are dead wrong. There are two main reasons why a hungry person is more than another mouth to feed and why fighting hunger is more than merely giving a man a free fish.
First, just as we all value safety and homeland security, a society with food security is just as important. Hunger drives one of our most primal instincts, and, if unsatisfied, bodes major implications on crime and civil unrest. From legendary conquests of Rome over the Nile for Egyptian grain, to legendary stories like Les Misérables, to 19th century wars with Native American tribes, to modern day food riots in Egypt, Indonesia Peru, and Haiti, and to rise of crime in many urban communities, food insecurity has been an underlying cause of many civil strife. However, citing food security as a means of ensuring societal security is still insufficient in itself. Although important, such rudimentary reason is akin to Roman emperors appeasing the masses with bread and circuses. Just rationale of satiating the hungry to avoid civil unrest, like all measure to ensure “national security,” is merely a stop-gap measure — albeit important in preventing the bottom from falling of out of society.
More importantly, public food assistance programs to ensure food security is more than a ‘hand-down,’ but rather a critical ‘hand-up’ in upward mobility — a hand-up to better nutrition and greater societal economic benefits. Notably, children eating nutritious breakfasts in the morning have been shown to demonstrate improved cognitive function and better school performance. The implications of that should be obvious for future economic potential. Moreover, it has been shown in studies that individuals with limited economic means have poorer diets with greater caloric density and lower nutritious value.
Why is this important as a hand-up? Consider the case of a 60-year-old man who dies of heart disease. While a cardiologist may say he died of a heart attack, and primary care physician may say he died from not taking medication for his/her high cholesterol and diabetes — an epidemiologist and nutritionist may actually say his heart attack was caused by his poor diet, because he lacked the basic capacity to choose to eat better due to lack of economic flexibility to choose healthier foods. (Indeed, studies have shown that 82 percent of heart disease and 91 percent of diabetes may have the underlying cause of poor diet and lifestyle.) Obviously, the preventable disease burden on society and the associated costs would be enormous. Furthermore, due to the father being unable to afford healthier and more nutritious meals, his daughter may not do well in school — not because of poor innate intelligence, but rather from cognitive underdevelopment from poor nourishment. This may indeed further feed into a vicious life cycle for her and her later children.
Granted, current food assistance programs could be improved to enhance food choice for more nutritious products — such as Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to exclude unhealthy sugar-sweetened beverages from food stamp redemption, or USDA’s pilot programs to incentivize food stamp use at healthier vendors. But the ability of current programs to prevent the rock bottom food-insecure individual from falling out of society, from falling out of our society’s future, is critical.
Overall, we need to have a clearer understanding about hunger — what are its implications, how to best improve food security via macro-level policies, how to improve poor diets via better programs, how to improve nutrition outreach to the most vulnerable, how to improve dietary guidelines and how to avert economic burdens of disease and cognitive impairment — for society today and for our posterity. Hunger is more than merely giving a fish to satisfy an empty stomach. Preventing hunger is critical to our society’s future.
Finally, returning to that earlier child who subsisted off of federally subsidized school meals and a pizzeria shop’s leftovers: Such federal school meal programs offered him a priceless hand-up and left a legacy on his future — he ultimately grew up to become a nutritionist. Reflecting back, those federal school lunch and breakfast programs made me realize just how vital food programs are, as those indelible memories of the pangs of hunger during my childhood survive with me to this day.
Please remember to support Stamp Out Hunger this Saturday. Thank you.
Eric Ding is a nutritionist and medical researcher at Harvard University, and founder of theCampaign for Cancer Prevention.