A few events, some louder than others this week got me thinking about just how unequal our current food system is. The protestors on Wall Street are angry because income disparity leads to a disparity in political representation and access to education, improvement, etc. The food system, as it currently exists in this country, has the same results. The poor stay poor (and less healthy), and the small farms fail, so that the large corporate farms may survive.
In fact, the first event this weekend that reminded me of the parallels between food and finance was the first major gathering of farmers at Occupy Wall Street. Jim Gerritsen, president of the Organic Seed Trader’s Organization, spoke to The New York Times last week about why he’d be making the journey from Maine to join the protests:
He said farm gate prices — wholesale prices for farm products, excluding transportation — were the lowest he had ever seen. “And the price of food in supermarkets is higher than it’s ever been. So, farmers are hanging on by their fingertips, and consumers are paying through the nose.”
“The money that gets made in between,” he continued, “is going to companies, and the government isn’t doing anything about it.
“And if it goes on like this, all we’re going to have to eat in this country is unregulated, imported, genetically modified produce. That’s not a healthy food system.”
Gerritsen’s quote is so valuable in that it reminds us that the current system of wholesale food distribution harms both producers and consumers. Just as big finance is constructed to continually insulate those in positions of power, to reward and encourage their risk-taking on the backs of a working class who suffers when these high-stakes maneuvers fail, so too is the food systm constructed to encourage consolidation and cheap growing methods that cause higher prices for less healthful foods.
And the people suffering most are the consumers with the least.
The second event was much more quiet, in terms of news coverage anyway, and much more disturbing. After a seven-hour stand-off last week, a woman in Texas shot her two children, and then herself, in the head. The reason? She was at the end of her rope, having repeatedly been denied food stamps by the state.
She and her children bathed in hoses outside of their trailer park. She begged at the back doors of restaurants for their food waste scraps. But her child support payments were greater than her expenses, so she was deemed able to care for her children without assistance.
Clearly, this was not the case.
Last Monday, at a campaign event in Iowa, GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum promised to significantly reduce federal funding for food stamps, citing the nation’s obesity crisis as evidence that the program was being fradulently misused.
If hunger is a problem in America, then why do we have an obesity problem among the people who we say have a hunger program?” Santorum asked.
I had to re-read the last part of the sentence a few times to fully understand what it meant.
Set aside for the moment the complete lack of understanding of the roots of the obesity crisis (a significant increase in the consumption of certain types of foods, such as refined sweeteners combined with a sharp increase in the prices of whole foods due to the above mentioned consolidations) that this quote shows. Set aside for the moment the reality that SNAP has actually been proven to help grow the economy by protecting the poorest consumers.
I think it’s important to take a minute to address what Santorum meant by “among the people who we say have a hunger program.”
Maybe I’m wrong. But I’m pretty sure what he’s saying there is that poor minorities tend to be those receiving federal nutrition assistance, and also tend to have the highest rates of obesity. I think what he’s saying is, why do black people need food stamps when they are already so fat?
Santorum isn’t wrong. According to the most recent data, adult obesity rates for Blacks and Latin@s were higher than for Whites in at least 40 states and the District of Columbia.
Why? Do we believe, as Rick Santorum seems to, that this is because black and Latin@ people eat more? Are lazier?
Or could it be this: 35.3 percent of adults earning less than $15,000 per year were obese compared with 24.5 percent of adults earning $50,000 or more per year.
Could it be that we need food assistance from the federal government not in spite of increased obesity rates among the poorest, but because of those rates?
Could it be that our government’s food system, as its finance system, rewards the lowest-brow, cheapest, poorest-quality investment, and that the customers for those shoddy investments — in this case, mostly in the form of high fructose corn syrup and soda — are the least fortunate among us?
That those who have the least choice suffer the most loss.
Internet comments on stories about the Texas family are too cruel to replicate, but include standard lines about the selfishness, or laziness, or incompetance of a woman who would turn to such desperate (and indefensible) measures when faced with an 18-page form and proof of income and employment.
But of nearly $262 billion in farm subsidies paid by the federal government over the last fifteen years, the farms with the highest top ten percent in annual incomes raked in more than 74%. $165.9 billion. And no one is calling them lazy.