Hunger in America

Breadline USAMy friend Sasha Abramsky has just come out with a book about hunger in the United States, called Breadline USA: The Hidden Scandal of American Hunger and How to Fix It. I picked up a copy yesterday, and while I’m only about 50 pages into it so far, I can already highly recommend it to anyone interested in “food insecurity” (to use a current buzzword) and the myriad ways that increasing inequality has bred increasing hardship in modern society.

There have been a number of worthy and well-known books about American food culture in recent years, such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and those two in particular were revelatory to many of us in their own ways. Those books, however, tend to focus on the perverse consequences, both social and medical, of an abundance of cheap calories, due to corn-based industrial agriculture, fast food chains, and so on.

That’s an important story, to be sure, but Sasha’s book addresses the flip side of our food problem, which is not a surplus of affordable food, but a deficit, and the fact that growing numbers of Americans—including people with full-time jobs—struggle to feed themselves and their families. As housing costs, medical costs, transportation costs, and food costs increase, while wages stagnate (or vanish altogether as jobs are lost), more and more people are forced to choose between medicine and protein, or between paying for their housing or paying for their dinner.

To say that Breadline USA is about food is like saying that Anna Karenina is about adultery: while food insecurity is the thread that stitches the book together, one can’t discuss hunger without delving into the larger economic forces that have put us in a situation where people working full-time at low-wage jobs often rely on food banks to keep their refrigerators minimally stocked. It’s no fluke that the first chapter is more about energy costs than food, describing the difficulties faced by residents of rural Siskiyou County, in the shadow of Mount Shasta, as transportation costs rise, public transportation is skeletal at best, and jobs in one’s own town are often nonexistent. Food banks, pantries, and soup kitchens these days don’t only serve the homeless or the unemployed—more and more, they are the last resort of the working poor, retirees, or others who had previously prided themselves on never having had to accept a handout from anyone.

The book is a compelling mixture of on-the-ground reportage backed up with data and policy discussion, interspersed with personal narrative—a combination that will be familiar to anyone who has read Sasha’s earlier books on the criminal justice system or voting rights. The bulk of the reporting for the book was done before the implosion of the housing bubble caused our house-of-cards economic system to teeter so frighteningly, and it’s safe to say that the hardships faced by the poor and the lower middle class are now much more dire than they were when the book went to press, as jobs continue to disappear and government safety nets fray. You can get a taste of what Breadline USA is all about by listening to Sasha’s interview at Truthdig or reading some of the articles at his website or for the Guardian newspaper (California readers may be interested in his Guardian articles on our state’s economic problems as well).

9 Responses to “Hunger in America”

  1. ng says:

    Thanks for a very informative and well-written review. I’m getting the book, and hope lots of people read it and get active.

  2. eric says:

    I look forward to reading it. I’m especially curious about the “how to fix it” part; I imagine, from David’s Anna Karenina analogy, that the solution will require a complete overhaul of Russian–I mean American–society…

  3. avoice says:

    Your pal, Sasha, seems to be a bit of a professional alarmist. But it couldn’t hurt to store away some Campbell’s soup cans in the pantry, just in case.

  4. dc says:

    ng: Thanks!

    eric: Since I’m only 50 pages in, I can’t say much about the “how to fix it” part yet, but so far the solutions mentioned have involved a strengthening of the safety net, but not any wholesale overhaul of society. I know that later parts of the book get more into the horrors of our WalMartized economy, and based on the Truthdig interview, it sounds like Sasha yearns for a government that doesn’t instinctively favor corporate executives over the struggling masses (“Empathy” as government policy! Imagine that!).

    avoice: If pulling a fire alarm when there’s a fire makes one an “alarmist,” then sure. It’s easy to be complacent if you’re not one of the 25 million people who rely on food banks for breakfast or dinner because they’ve already eaten the “just in case” Campbell’s soup in the pantry.

  5. avoice says:

    Touche, but I was really commenting on Sasha’s overall “glass half empty” attitude. Of course, when there’s a fire you pull the alarm, but I don’t see that there is any trend to starvation here in the USA. That people need to resort to food stamps and private or government run food banks, is not a pleasant thought but I don’t see it as growing issue–I don’t see the damn breaking. Depressions and recessions increase the need for this kind of direct aid, but that is to be expected. But then I haven’t read the book, and have just skimmed the links you gave to form this impression. I may be misjudging your pal. He may be a seer.

  6. avoice says:

    Above, I meant the “dam breaking” I’m pretty sure, although it makes some metaphorical sense as it stands. Maybe it was a slip of the Freudian finger.

  7. dc says:

    Avoice: One doesn’t have to be a seer to know that unemployment is higher than it’s been in 30 years, and that the state of California is on the verge of making severe cuts to the kind of direct aid that you yourself say are increasingly needed in times like this. As for a “trend to starvation,” who’s being alarmist here? Sasha is very explicit about the fact that he’s writing about the debilitating effects of poverty, not large-scale starvation.

    If you don’t think it’s a scandal that so many millions people are struggling to feed themselves in a country with probably the highest standard of living in the history of the world, then you certainly are a “glass half full” kind of guy, but the book is about what is happening now, not what Sasha expects to happen after a dam (or a damn) breaks. If anything, I personally think he may in fact be too sanguine about what miseries the next half-century may bring, as we adjust to life without cheap hydrocarbons, but that’s a topic for another day.

  8. eric says:

    Just a note, avoice: I think most food banks are not run by the government. Certainly the ones around me (Boston area) are not. The biggest one, at which I have volunteered several times, is independent and mostly privately funded, runs largely on volunteer efforts, gets food donations from supermarkets, restaurants, other organizations and private individuals, buys some of its food with state government money, and feeds hundreds of thousands of hungry people.

  9. Carol Polk says:

    Eric, perhaps avoice is thinking of the food commmodity program whereby the federal government dispenses all the food it has acquired through agricultural price support programs. Lots of peanut butter, hot dogs, corn meal, cheese, milk, often eggs. This stuff is, or has been historically absolutely essential to free and reduced price school lunch programs. Participants in the WIC program also receive directly or through federal cash subsidies access to some high protein foods in particular. We also see large amounts of these goods in programs where the US provides good in truly starving parts of the world other than home.

    Various levels of government have made the supermarket and restaurant donations charitable contributions suitable as tax deductions and in that way help to support the kinds of food banks you describe. The churches that very often are the conduits and organizers of such food banks receive favorable tax treatment as well. I’m all for these government decisions, but I also know that they mean higher taxes for wage earners and others.

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