Food is one of the most basic human needs, and feeding people is among the basic functions of any remotely competent civilization. Our ancestors’ efforts to avoid starvation are arguably the reason we have a civilization in the first place. If the Neolithic Revolution in agricultural production had never happened, humans would likely still be a species of itinerant hunter-gatherers. To quote Bertolt Brecht (by way of Tom Waits): “Food is the first thing, morals follow on.”
So what to make of a society that doesn’t adequately feed a large swath of its populace? Let’s allow that in times of great crisis—say, in the aftermath of a natural disaster or a devastating war—feeding everyone equally might simply be impossible. But what if there is no crisis? What if mass hunger is simply a routine matter, brought on by nothing other than the policies and the consent of the ruling class? What is that nation’s worth?
These isn’t a hypothetical state of affairs. By last count, there are about 49 million Americans living in food insecure households, “food insecurity” being the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rather anodyne term for not simply having enough food to eat. Nearly 16 million of Americans living in food insecure households are children. All told, a little more than one-seventh of all U.S. households don’t have the food they need today.
As the hunger epidemic has spread, people higher and higher up the economic ladder have begun to feel its effects, too. The emergency food assistance network Feeding America reports that 27 percent of those suffering from food insecurity aren’t eligible for food stamps, because their incomes are too high. Between 2007 and 2010, the number of food stamp recipients with PhDs tripled. And according to a recent survey of 600,000 Feeding America clients, roughly 10 percent of the non-profit’s adult client base are current students.
This is a crisis, but it’s not the product of scarcity. In fact, a staggering amount of food in the United States simply goes to waste. In 2010, the USDA estimated that 133 billion pounds of food went uneaten—nearly one-third of the total domestic food supply. That’s 141 trillion calories’ worth of food—enough to meet a year’s worth of the average daily caloric intake for some 156 million adult men.
All of this is to say that America’s ongoing hunger epidemic is an outrage of world-historical proportions. If this country lacked the means to adequately feed all of its citizens, that would be a tragedy; the fact that it has the means, but lacks the political will, is an abomination. The United States is currently moving in the wrong direction, instituting policies that exacerbate hunger instead of ameliorating it.
Case in point, the much-ballyhooed 2014 Farm Bill, which President Obama signed in February. That legislation included a provision intended to shut down so-called “Heat and Eat loopholes” in fifteen states plus Washington, D.C. (How “Heat and Eat” works is a little convoluted, and probably not worth explaining in detail here; for those who are interested, I outlined what the so-called loophole accomplishes at my day job back in January.) Suffice to say, the Congressional Research Service originally estimated that cracking down on Heat and Eat would cause some 850,000 households to lose an average $90 per month in food stamp benefits.
Actions on the state level have blunted the effect of the bill somewhat. Several governors have successfully blocked the cuts through a little bit of budget trickery. But not all of them have. It’s not yet clear exactly how many families will still receive the expected benefit cuts, but even the best-case scenario doesn’t look great. Meanwhile, the House majority is likely to pursue further cuts to food stamps after the 2014 midterms.
There are plenty of other ways to measure widespread immiseration, but food insecurity is perhaps the most visceral metric we have. And what the available data tells us is that a startling number of Americans don’t have sufficient access to the most basic and essential good you can possibly buy. This is an act of violence. In the richest nation that has ever existed, it could be nothing else.
You may remember a brief moment not too long ago when the political watchword of the day was “inequality.” Even the more fashionable Republicans were scrambling to identify themselves with a solution to America’s woeful “opportunity” deficit, a sort of inequality-lite. Not much has come of it yet, but the sudden emphasis on class issues was at least a baby step in the right direction. And while the whole idea that we needed to “build ladders of opportunity” never had much content to it in the first place, “inequality” was at least an apt diagnosis of a genuine sociopolitical illness.
But just talking about inequality doesn’t quite get to the immediacy of the problem. The truth is, this country is creating multi-billionaires through appalling acts of mass deprivation and larceny. Inequality is a structural problem, but hunger is a crime.