New rules for fighting hunger in the US

“Nearly one in four people in St. Louis, Mo., lives in poverty — a rate twice the national average. In a state that’s 67 percent farmland, 271,000 households face food insecurity each year. Complicating matters is the ongoing recession, which has forced many of the newly unemployed and the working poor into food pantries and onto food stamps.”

That’s the dire description that opens an article, authored by Julia Ramey Serazio, and  published in the Summer 2010 issue of Next American City. In the article, three St. Louis-based hunger fighters share their views on the changing social and economic nature of hunger in America.

The interviewees are: Frank Finnegan, executive director of the St. Louis Area Food Bank; Annie Mayrose, head of Gateway Greening’s City Seeds Urban Farm program; and Mark Rank, professor of social welfare at Washington University, whose research focuses on poverty and social injustice nationwide. [This post is reprinted, with modifications for space, from the original article.]

How would you describe the general landscape of hunger right now?

Finnegan: When the food bank first opened in the mid-1970s, it was more of an emergency program. There was a high number of low-birthweight babies, so we focused on what might help pregnant women. Most of the people we served were the short-term unemployed, the recently unemployed, or people who had a tragedy that caused them to leave the workforce and needed help for a few months until they went back. Now we find a much more permanent underclass that is almost always in need… More and more, we’re providing food to the working poor, and because of the high unemployment rate, now we’re finding the newly unemployed.

Mayrose: It’s very similar here, I think, to a lot of cities that have had urban sprawl where population exoduses left these giant food deserts… In St. Louis, we lost more than 500,000 people in those years alone, and now we have 350,000 people in the city with these mass gaps where there might not be a grocery store for miles. Corner stores don’t offer nutritious foods…

Rank: What you find is that people in poverty often have to make very hard choices between necessities. A classic trade-off is the “heat or eat” dilemma — in winter you have to decide whether you’re going to pay for heat or get food. A USDA report came out recently looking at the issue of food insecurity, which is a broader term for hunger. They found that among households below the poverty line, 42 percent also experience food insecurity. For households with kids, 50 percent experienced food insecurity in 2008. What people wind up doing is buying food that fills them up but is not nutritious, because it’s cheaper.

What are the greatest misconceptions about hunger?

Finnegan: The greatest misconception is, “I don’t know anybody who’s hungry.” People read about it, but they don’t think it’s happening in their neighborhood. You’re not going to find people who are starving to death. You are going to find people who are malnourished. They aren’t eating fruits and vegetables because they can’t afford to. I lived on food stamps for a week to learn about it. I had roughly $27. You can’t afford fresh fruits, so you go one of two ways: You eat what is filling and convenient, like crackers, chips and McDonald’s. The thing I did was bulk up, so I made ham and beans in a Crock-Pot, and that’s what you eat for four days in a row. In our area, only about 1 percent of people are homeless. It’s not the people on the street. It’s people living in houses, in urban and rural areas. It’s not an inner-city problem. …

Mayrose: I think the biggest misconception is that we can’t produce enough food. It’s not that — it’s the methods of distribution… It’s affordability, access, education and the types of equipment that we use. There are three growing seasons in St. Louis, so that’s a lot of food in a small space. People don’t realize how powerful urban agriculture can be with the right processes.

Rank: Some people say there isn’t a hunger problem because they see people who are overweight in poverty. A lot of that has to do with this issue of not getting the right nutrition. I did a study that found half of all American children will at some point be in a household that uses food stamps. The conception is, “The group that uses welfare and food stamps is a small group; it’s minorities; it’s not something I need to pay attention to.” If you look across the ages of 20 to 75, three-quarters of Americans will experience a year of poverty. This is an event that affects the vast majority of us. Things happen to people that they didn’t anticipate, like this recession. When these things happen, there’s not a whole lot in place to protect people. There are a couple reasons for this: One is that our country has always been based on an individualistic ethos. We’ve always had this feeling that the individual is responsible and the government is a last resort. This has worked against the idea that social welfare programs can be very helpful; there has been a tremendous amount of stigma around them. Nobody is proud to say, “Hey, I’m in poverty and I need help.” Another big reason the U.S. does so little is because our country is very heterogeneous in terms of race and ethnicity. The more homogenous a nation, the more likely it is to provide social safety nets. Poverty gets overlapped with this issue of race — people say this is a black or a Hispanic issue — it’s your problem and not our problem. As a result, we’re a reluctant welfare state.

Frank, how has the food supply changed for your organization?

Finnegan: Food banks follow the trends in the food industry…The majority of our product comes from the food industry. Kellogg, Quaker, Kraft and others donate their overproductions, their mistakes and new things that aren’t selling. When I started, we got a lot of overproduction. There’d be a truckload of Cap’n Crunch, which they’d rather donate than let go stale. Now when you go to the store, you buy something and it’s scanned, and that info is then shared with the manufacturer, so now they produce to replace. Now what we get is damaged product, or stuff left over after changes in packaging styles. As overproduction started to go away, food banks adapted. One of the things we’re bringing in now is fresh produce. We transport potatoes, onions, carrots and bananas. Kellogg can determine how many boxes of Cap’n Crunch they’ll have, but apple orchards can’t. We’re also doing a lot more store pickups now. We have trucks that go to Sam’s Club or Walmart and pick up that product that they would pull before it’s spoiled, but when it has hit a sell-by date.

When considering federal policy toward hunger, what sorts of things are you lobbying for? Are there any policies that you would like to see implemented or changed?

Finnegan: I was just in Washington, lobbying. We were up there working on job reauthorization, and the reauthorization of programs that feed children, including summer food services. The federal government could do much better, but they do provide us with product through emergency food assistance. I think the state government also has a responsibility to help those residents in need of additional food…

Mayrose: The WIC program as a whole in Missouri provides only $10 a month for fruits and vegetables. And they just increased it from $8. So it’s about improving programs like that to make them more efficient and effective. We’re also working with social service providers to convey to people there are farmers markets around, and they can use their benefits at some of these locations.

Rank: …The one thing we have that’s had a positive effect on poverty has been Social Security. In the 1950s 30 percent of the elderly were poor. Now just 10 percent are, and the only reason is Social Security. What has happened is the reverse for families and children, so when things happen to people, like you lose a job or get sick, there’s not a lot in place to protect you. You need to protect people from falling into poverty. If you can prevent it, especially for kids, you can save a lot of money in the long run…

Mark, you’ve done a lot of work studying the food stamp program. How well is it working?

Rank: When you look back at the history of food stamps, what a lot of people said is, “We want to make sure we identify people using this in the grocery line. We want them to feel bad, so that they are stigmatized and they don’t feel comfortable.” But now they’ve made it more accessible and less stigmatized. So instead of a stamp, people have a debit card. Nobody knows if you’re using a credit card or a food stamp card. They’ve changed the name to SNAP to make it sound more like a nutrition program than a welfare program. There’s more effort to convince people that if you qualify, you really should consider getting it. In this case there’s been a change of heart, and this is important from a nutritional point of view. It does no good to have people go hungry, especially children. But it still comes out that the amount people get is not enough. People routinely run out after the third week, and only about 65 percent of people who qualify for the program actually receive assistance.

What can be done on a community level to fight hunger?

Mayrose: The neighborhood aspect is the backbone of our organization. ..City Seeds is a 2.5-acre organic garden in downtown St. Louis. We partner with St. Patrick’s Center, which provides services for the homeless. We provide day-to-day supervision. Clients who work on the farm have to be duly enrolled in all the other supportive services the center offers, to treat drugs, alcohol, mental illness, etc. We have a therapeutic horticulture track and a job skills training class for folks a little more stable, who are ready to get an entry-level job… The farm is a great place to break down misconceptions of hunger and food injustice.

Rank: One thing would be having cities being able to provide affordable, quality childcare, which also provides some kind of nutrition. School nutrition programs are important. Communities can invest in those kinds of things…

Urban agriculture is gaining traction nationwide. How can it overlap with other approaches to fighting hunger?

Finnegan: Urban agriculture is a little too small-scale for what we do. But we do encourage our agencies to get involved with it. If somebody local wants to garden, we’ll pair them up with an agency in their neighborhood, and then the food bypasses us. We’re also looking at trying to partner with local growers here who have a market for their products but don’t bring them all to market. Like misshapen cucumbers — those they plough right back in. I don’t care if the cucumber is misshapen if it’s going to keep me from paying to ship it from across the country. And I can pay a local farmer. It’s a smaller footprint and a lower price. I didn’t realize that of the product he grows, maybe 20 percent, in his mind, is not sellable.

Mayrose: We try to partner with food banks as much as possible. We have established gleaning programs at the farmers markets we attend, and they now collect the leftover produce farmers want to donate. We want to expand on that to other markets in this area.

Where do you go from here?

Finnegan: I don’t believe we are ever going to eradicate hunger, because you would need to eradicate poverty…

Mayrose: We definitely want to grow as much food as we possibly can to meet demand, and provide more jobs training… We’re trying to expand our partners… And we’ll be doing more education. There is now so much more demand for workshops, education and training.

Rank: … [America’s] attitude toward poverty is really counterproductive. We think the individual is at fault, rather than saying, “There’s something structurally wrong here.” We have to think of it not as something that affects them, but as an issue that affects us all. We all pay for these high rates of poverty and hunger.