Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi
This past Friday, Bill Moyers hosted a conversation of the type we need to hear more often on the problem of hunger in America. The program featured a long interview with Kristi Jacobson and Mariana Chilton that revolved around their new documentary, A Place at the Table, which Jacobson directed and produced and in which Chilton plays a prominent role. Though I have not yet seen the film myself, Moyers calls it “one of the best documentaries that I’ve seen in years.”
The topic of the film is particularly pertinent in light of the recent debates in Congress over the new farm bill, which currently hangs in limbo. The House version of the bill was driven by a mean austerity agenda and would have cut $20.5 billion from SNAP, or food stamps, over the next decade. The bill failed to muster enough votes to pass, but it failed for the wrong reason: because a handful of Republicans voted against it on the ground that the cuts were insufficient. In their view, the food stamps program creates a “culture of dependency” that allows irresponsible loafers to live off the taxes paid by hardworking middle-class folks.
The documentary exposes the “dependency” argument for what it really is: a myth advanced by a vindictive faction of deficit ideologues with ties to special interest groups. The intent, lined with tacit racism, is clearly to disempower poor people and keep them on the edge of desperation. The documentary shows that far from spending their afternoons lounging on their hammocks, most food insecure people are working hard, sometimes at two or three jobs. So why do they turn to food stamps? Because their wages aren’t enough to put decent meals on the table. While productivity in the U.S. has risen at a steady pace over the past thirty years, most gains are being funneled upward, to those already well off. Wages, in contrast, have either stagnated or dropped, making it hard for ordinary people just to pay for basic necessities like heating, rent, and electricity—and food. It may strain credulity but it’s been argued that when all factors are taken into account, about 50% of Americans are living below or near the poverty line.
Fifty million people in our land are affected by chronic hunger—that’s one out of six—and 48 million receive some kind of federal food assistance. Yet the hungry are largely invisible. The documentary aims to shine a light on them, to make their faces visible and thereby to mobilize us to act on their behalf. According to Moyers’ guests, the hungry don’t stand out because a stigma of shame attaches to hunger. This stigma is especially distressing for mothers, who are fearful about letting others know they’re finding it hard to feed their children.
People who earn just enough to nullify their eligibility for food stamps find themselves in a particularly agonizing situation called “the cliff effect” because they feel exactly as if they have fallen off a cliff. An excerpt from the film focuses on a single mother named Barbie, who was dropped from SNAP when she got a job that paid just enough to bring her above the minimum level needed to qualify for food stamps. This left her worse off than when she was unemployed. At one point she looks up with tearful eyes and asks poignantly, with reference to her kids, “What am I supposed to do? What do I give them?”
Ironically, while congressmen push hard for cuts to SNAP and other nutritional programs on the grounds that we must reduce the federal deficit, they have no reluctance about granting subsidies to giant agricultural corporations, which are already among the most profitable enterprises in the U.S. Yet the long-range costs of hunger and malnutrition are far higher than the costs of the nutritional programs. Chilton, who is director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, explains how this is so. She points out that during the first three years of life a child’s brain develops most rapidly and therefore is most in need of nourishing food. Nutritional deficiencies in this period hinder every aspect of a child’s development—cognitive, social, and emotional–taking a continuing toll on the child throughout life. But the toll extends further, with an impact on everyone. Thus, Chilton maintains, our best investment is investing in young children and their families, which yields an ample return both in fiscal terms and by way of a healthier society.
If hunger in America is so widespread, Moyers asks, why don’t charities do more to counteract it? His guests reply that charity is not enough. Charity is designed to provide a quick fix—emergency food aid in times of crisis—but it is not a solution to chronic hunger and malnutrition. Food-bank directors interviewed in the documentary say, “We can’t do this alone. We need government to step in and play a greater role.” Government programs are needed to provide long-term food assistance, and this is why Congress is heading in the wrong direction, abrogating its responsibility just at the time when it should be stepping in and spearheading the campaign to end poverty and hunger.
The guests contend that SNAP, WIC, and school feeding programs are making a tangible difference in the lives of children. Such programs feed thirty million children daily, significantly reducing the burden on their parents, improving their cognitive abilities, and relieving stress due to hunger. Yet the meals facilitated by food stamps are far from adequate. To still the pangs of hunger, parents often buy cheap junk food because more nutritious vegetables, fruits, meat, and dairy are too costly. Congressman Jim McGovern experimented with living on food stamps for a week and found himself feeling constantly hungry, tired, weak, and cranky. After a week he had to stop the experiment. But he had a choice. For low-income families on food stamps, there is no choice. They either subsist on the high-calorie, low-nutrition food provided by food stamps or they don’t eat at all.
Toward the end of the interview, Moyers raises the sensitive question why hunger is so persistent in the richest nation on earth. He delivers part of the answer himself: We’re “up against the interlocking power grid of big agriculture, big corporations, and big government.” I would add, “A government that is subservient to big agriculture and big corporations and not to the people. ” He asks the women what we need to do to reverse these trends. Chilton answers eloquently: “We need more moms, we need more families to be able to speak up. I think that we need to take over, take back our democracy, take back our sense of involvement, of belonging, that this is our government. This government is supposed to be working for everyone regardless of how you were born or where you were born or how much money you make. It’s supposed to work for all of us.”
To provide ways to take action to end childhood hunger in America, Moyers gives a number of links on the Take Action page of his website.
Buddhist Global Relief’s mission is not confined to the shores of America. While we have launched projects to address hunger in the U.S., our concern is global and universal. Hunger has no boundaries; it does not recognize borders and is not confined to people of a particular nationality or ethnic group. It can strike anywhere and affect anyone. We therefore aim to address hunger both in the U.S. and around the world. To deal with hunger on such a wide scale, we need to look at our global situation and make our compassion universal. However, the mere sentiment of compassion is insufficient. Compassion must be conjoined with insight into causes and a conscientious intention to act.
We need both an ethical commitment to the welfare of all and the acumen to understand why hunger is so widespread. I see hunger as in essence a symptom of poverty. Poverty in turn is precipitated by disempowerment, which occurs when a powerful elite, united across national boundaries, usurps control of the world’s economic system and manipulates it to their narrow advantage, without regard for the impact on everyone else. The final solution to hunger therefore lies in empowerment: in empowering people to reclaim control of their own lives, to govern themselves in a true democracy, to become masters over their own economies, and to become sovereign over their own food systems. A global system designed to maximize profits, to sustain a super-elite of unimaginable wealth, will inevitably breed poverty and hunger. Such a system will even disregard the limits of the biosphere, sacrificing life for the sake of abstract figures representing monetary wealth. Ultimately what is called for is a new global economic system, one that gives primacy to people over economic domination and protection of the planet over the profit line.