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The Food Gap, Poverty, and Income Disparity

by Mark Winne

An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.

Winne We have in America today a tale of two food systems—one for the poor and one for everyone else. The poor cobble together their week’s groceries from a combination of food stamps, food bank donations, and bus trips to Wal-Mart. If they are lucky, parents won’t be forced to skip meals to feed their children. The rest of us, driven by an ever expanding food consciousness, choose from an unprecedented abundance which increasingly leans toward the organic, local, and expensive end of the food chain. Our toughest choice is whether to pay for our food with Visa or Mastercard.  And as the numbers attest—35 million hungry or food insecure Americans (USDA); 50,000 emergency food sites visited annually by 10 percent of the country’s population (America’s Second Harvest); 26 million people receiving food stamps—we have allowed a significant segment of American society to eat at the lowest end of the food chain. These parallel food systems have become the norm, and like the streets and buildings that surround us, we have come to accept them as just part of our everyday landscape.

The United States is unique among developed nations in that it has evolved a stingy, crazy quilt of a social welfare system that places a disproportionate emphasis on food relief. Rather than address hunger’s underlying cause—poverty—in a direct and aggressive fashion, we rely on fifteen separate USDA nutrition programs, a vast network of private emergency food sites, and thousands of community-based food projects to, in effect, manage poverty.

Our national ambivalence toward poverty is deeply ingrained in our collective psyche. According to the World Values Survey, only 29 percent of U.S. citizens believe the poor are trapped in poverty compared to 60 percent of Europeans who hold that opinion. When asked if they thought the poor were lazy, 60 percent of U.S. citizens responded affirmatively compared to 26 percent of Europeans. When researchers looked at the percentage of spending on social welfare in relation to national GDP, U.S. spending of eight percent was far behind almost every other industrialized nation, with most northern European nations allocating fifteen to twenty percent (Alesina and Glaeser, Fighting Poverty in the U.S. and Europe, 2004).

But if our resolve to end poverty is weak, our determination to end hunger is not much stronger. According to the USDA, total food stamp spending for 2006 was $32.8 billion, the highest level ever for the program. These numbers, however, work out to an average per person allotment of less than $1.05 per meal, or $3.14 per day.

Some advocates have suggested that the government could virtually eliminate food insecurity in the United States by adding $10 per week per food stamp recipient to the program’s benefits. This would increase the total annual cost of the program by about $16 billion. But will the Nation end the Iraq War and the current administration’s tax cuts for the rich to end food insecurity? Don’t count on it. When the hands go up for help, you can be sure that the poor will be ushered to the back of the line.

Any effort to address poverty, and ultimately hunger, will require a concomitant effort to reduce the vast income disparities that plague this nation. Economic inequality has been increasing in the United States for more than thirty years. According to the New York Times, “The top 0.1 percent of earners—that’s one out of every 1,000 families—made 6.8 percent of the nation’s pretax income in 2004, up from 4.7 percent a decade earlier and about 2 percent in the ’60s and ’70s.”

As the superrich take a greater share of the national wealth, the poor sink deeper into poverty. Of the 37 million poor Americans, 16 million live in severe poverty—incomes less than half of the federal poverty level—which is a thirty-two-year peak. And just in case people think that the severely poor are good-for-nothing, working-age men, one in three is a child, and two in three are women.

The lack of anti-poverty investments are not only unjust, they are penny-wise and pound-foolish. In a study by Georgetown University economist Harry J. Holzer, it was found that children who grow up poor in the United States cost the country $500 billion per year. This is due to the fact that they are less productive, earn less money, commit more crimes, and have more health-related expenses.

For many, including myself, food work has been the gateway to understanding the relationship between hunger and poverty. As both our awareness and frustration grows, it has become obvious that by themselves, antihunger strategies, i.e. poverty management, will never end hunger. That goal will only be achieved when poverty is nearly eliminated, a process that requires a renewed commitment to a fair distribution of our nation’s wealth.

For 25 years Mark Winne was the Executive Director of the Hartford Food System, a private non-profit agency that works on food and hunger issues in the Hartford, Connecticut area. During his tenure with HFS, Mark organized community self-help food projects that assisted the city's lower income and elderly residents. Mark's work with the Food System included the development of a commercial hydroponic greenhouse, Connecticut's Farmers' Market Nutrition Program, several farmers' markets, a 20-acre community supported agriculture farm, food and nutrition education programs, and a neighborhood supermarket.

Winne now writes, speaks, and consults extensively on community food system topics including hunger and food insecurity, local and regional agriculture, community assessment, and food policy. He also does policy communication work for the Community Food Security Coalition. His essays and opinion pieces have appeared in the Washington Post, The Nation, Hartford Courant, Boston Globe, In These Times, Sierra, Orion, Successful Farming and numerous organizational and professional newsletters and journals across the country. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is the author of Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty. Read an excerpt from the book on Alternet.