Posts Tagged ‘hunger’

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The existing alphabet soup of possible recoveries—V, U, W, and so on (which I discussed back in April)—is clearly inadequate to describe what has been taking place in the United States in recent months.

That’s because there’s no single path of recovery for everyone. For some, the recovery from the pandemic crisis has been just fine, while for many others there has been no recovery at all. Instead, things are going from bad to worse. In other words, there’s a growing gap between the haves and have-nots—or, as Peter Atwater has put it, “there have been two vastly divergent experiences.”

That’s why Atwater invented the idea of a K-shaped recovery.

I think he’s right, although I don’t divide the world up in quite the same way.

The stem of the K illustrates the quick and deep crash that almost everyone experienced as the pandemic spread and large parts of the U.S. economy were shut down. Then, as time went on, with massive federal bailouts and businesses reopening, the arm and leg of the K have moved in very different directions.

For the small group at the top—including large corporations and wealthy individuals—there has in fact been a real recovery from the pandemic crisis. The downturn has turned out to be nothing more than a bump in the road. Businesses that were declared essential were able to purchase the labor power of workers and continue their operations, while others have been free to get rid of whatever workers they deemed unnecessary to making profits. And, in both cases, corporations on both Main Street and Wall Street were showered with support from an extraordinary array of government programs—from low interest-rates and Fed purchases of private bonds to forgivable loans and tax breaks—with little accountability or oversight.

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The best illustration of their path to recovery is the rebound in the stock market, which by any measure (such as the Standard & Poor’s 500 or Dow Jones Industrial Average indices, in the chart above) has regained most of the ground lost in the crash earlier this year. The S&P, which stood at 3368.68 in mid-February, and fell to 2405.55 in mid-March, ended yesterday at 3251.52. Similarly, the DJIA, fell from a peak of 28996.11 to a low of 20117.20 and yesterday reached 26680.87. This rebounds both signals that investors are betting on a continued recovery in corporate profits and represents a growing claim on the surplus produced by workers.

The small group at the top of the U.S. economy is quickly climbing the arm of the K-shaped recovery.

Meanwhile, everyone else is headed in the opposite direction. They’re the “essential” workers who have been forced to have the freedom to continue to sell their ability to work to their employers and to either labor at home with little control over their working conditions or with the threat of spreading infections in their existing workplaces, or the tens of millions of other workers who have been laid off, had their hours shortened, or suffered pay cuts. We know how different their own experience has been from those at the top because initial claims for unemployment benefits are now more than 50 million, hunger and food insecurity are spreading, and they’re having difficulty paying their rent and mortgages.

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The extent of the economic and social disaster for those at the bottom is perhaps best represented by the loss of employment income for households making up to $100 thousand a year (and therefore about half of American households). According to data assembled in the the Census Bureau’s weekly Household Pulse Survey, the share of households in those income groups has grown from just under 50 percent (for 23 April to 5 May, the first week when the survey was conducted) to 53.44 percent (for the latest week, 2 to 7 July).

The situation of American workers is clearly the leg at the bottom of the K, which represents no recovery at all.

The fact that the United States is currently undergoing a K-shaped recovery from the pandemic crisis should come as no surprise, and not just because the administration of Donald Trump and his allies in Congress have promoted and adopted policies that have both worsened the pandemic and shifted the burdens of the economic crisis to those who can least afford it. It’s also because the American economy and society were already characterized by grotesque levels of inequality stretching back at least four decades, which were in turn reinforced by the uneven recovery from the Second Great Depression under the previous administration. Trump and the “hacks and grifters” around him have only nudged things along in the same direction, creating even more powerlessness and hopelessness for the majority of the population.

The problem is, the majority of Americans at the bottom haven’t been heard for too many years, from long before the pandemic started to ravage the country. In the late 1960s, shortly before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr. called their protests “the language of the unheard.”

Even earlier, the late John Lewis wrote (but was never allowed to deliver) a frank description of the situation in the United States that is eerily prescient of the current predicament:

This nation is still a place of cheap political leaders who build their careers on immoral compromises and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic and social exploitation.

That’s why, he wanted to tell those who participated in the 1963 March on Washington, “if any radical social, political and economic changes are to take place in our society, the people, the masses, must bring them about.”

The K-shaped form of the current recovery is both a testament to the compromises of the latest generation of “cheap political leaders” and a reminder that the “the people, the masses” are the ones who must bring about the necessary changes in American society to create a more equal social, political, and economic recovery.

 

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For those who remain skeptical, Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean that only Black lives matter. The movement represents the idea that, if Black lives don’t matter—because of police violence, COVID infections and deaths, unemployment, and much else—then all lives are diminished by the existing set of economic and social institutions.

Much the same holds for food insufficiency or hunger. If right now, in the midst of the pandemic, Black households are suffering more from a lack of food than Whites, then something is systemically wrong—American society is not treating all lives in a fair and humane manner.

It’s as if someone had a knee to their throats, not allowing them to eat.

But, of course, that’s not how racial capitalism works. There’s plenty of food to be had and no one is standing at the door of the grocery store or supermarket preventing them from entering. But people only get to eat a sufficient amount if they have the money to purchase the food. And if they lose their jobs or have their hours shortened or are faced with a pay cut, then their incomes aren’t enough to pay for the commodities they need, including food. They have to go without. So, if working-class Blacks (and Hispanics and others) are the last ones hired and the first hired, or they’re attempting to make do with whatever low-paying jobs are available, then they and their families go hungry.

So, what do the data show?

The chart at the top of the post shows how widespread and unequal hunger is in the United States. According to the information from the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Surveys, comparing the situation from before the novel coronavirus pandemic (prior to 13 March 2020) and now (between 18 and 23 June 2020), overall food insufficiency has grown from an already-high 7.6 percent to 9.5 percent.* But the rates are much worse for Black Americans—both before the pandemic, when it was 16.5 percent, and more recently, when it has risen to 18.5 percent—as well as Hispanics—12.8 percent and 13.9 percent, respectively.

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The situation is even more dire when we consider households with children, as indicated in the chart above. Overall, food insufficiency in such households has risen during the pandemic from 10.2 percent to 12.3 percent. But the rate for Blacks, which suffered from hunger at more than 3 times the rate of Whites before the pandemic, is now 20.5 percent. The rate for Hispanic households, which was already high, remains around 15 percent.**

Clearly, Black lives don’t matter in the United States when it comes to food sufficiency. They didn’t matter before the COVID crisis, and they matter even less now.

 

Transforming American society in the name of “liberty, justice, and freedom” means many things in this moment—including tackling the problem of hunger.

 

*In order to work with the questions in the Census Bureau survey, I define food insufficiency or hunger as the sum of responses of “sometimes not enough to eat” and “often not enough to eat.”

**If I include the third response, “enough food, but not always the types wanted”—and therefore add to the other answers the Census Bureau’s equivalent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition of low food security (“reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake”)—the rates soar. White households with children are experiencing a rate of food insecurity (as against hunger or food insufficiency, in the way I’ve used it in the text) of 40.5 percent. For Black households it’s 58 percent, and, in the case of Hispanic households, 58.8 percent.

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Tens of of American workers have been assaulted by the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with mass layoffs, furloughs, shortened hours, and pay cuts. As a result, food insecurity has risen dramatically in the United States. In a national survey with responses from late April, 28 percent of households reported they worried about food running out before they had money to buy more, while 22 percent of households said the food they bought didn’t last and they didn’t have enough money to get more.

It should come as no surprise that, in the United States, the rates of job losses and food insecurity differ according to race and ethnicity.

Black and Latino workers, for example, experienced larger employment declines than white workers between February and April. A Washington Post-Ipsos national poll from late April and early May found that 20 percent of Hispanic adults and 16 percent of Black adults reported being laid off or furloughed during the pandemic, compared to 11 percent of white adults and 12 percent of adults of other races and ethnicities.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, similar differences can be seen in the degree of food insecurity. While 22 percent of households said the food they bought didn’t last and they didn’t have enough money to get more, the rate was substantially higher for Black (29 percent) and Hispanic respondents (34 percent) and lower for whites (18 percent).

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Jean-François Millet, “The Gleaners” (ca. 1855–56)

We already had high food insecurity in this country and now we are putting another layer of need on top of it.

— Kevin M. Fitzpatrick

One of the many irrational characteristics of capitalism is that billions of tons of food go to waste while hundreds of millions of people struggle with hunger on a daily basis. And like all the other senseless attributes of the way the economy is currently organized, the mismatch between the enormous quantity of food that is available for human consumption but is not consumed and the vast number of people who are food insecure has been highlighted and heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic—especially in the United States.

Even before the pandemic, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reported that approximately 30 percent of food produced for human consumption around the world is either lost (from post-harvest to distribution) or wasted (at retail and consumption levels) each year—while an estimated 821 million people (just below 11 percent of the world’s population) were undernourished (pdf).* And in the United States? According to the National Resources Defense Council (pdf), the degree of food waste was even higher—between 39 and 43 percent of the total U.S. food supply. At the same time, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (pdf), more than 37 million Americans (13.9 percent of households) suffered food insecurity—and less than one-third of the food that was thrown out would be enough to feed this population completely.

This senseless combination of widespread food waste and food insecurity in the United States has only worsened in recent months. On one hand, with job losses skyrocketing because of the response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, hunger is a growing issue for millions of Americans. On the other hand, farmers aren’t able to harvest and sell the food they’re growing.

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We’ve all seen the photos and read the stories: American workers and their families are lining up outside understocked food banks while animals are being culled, mountains of produce are rotting in the fields, and crops are being plowed under.

Clearly, the capitalist food system has failed. It certainly didn’t function well before the pandemic. And now its irrationality is even more evident, as it discards tons of food while more and more workers and their families go hungry.

But there are alternatives, outside of capitalism.

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Frank Döring, cafeteria of an elementary school in Vanceburg, KY

For example, many schools are continue to prepare and making available, for pick up or delivery, free meals to needy students. But the “grab-and-go process,” without much more government assistance, becomes difficult the more remote the schools and the populations they serve are. Moreover, the free meal stations and deliveries put those who travel to work, prepare the food, and deliver it at additional risk for exposure to the coronavirus.

Food pantries and food banks are also providing free food (Feeding America estimates that demand has increased an average of 70 percent, and 40 percent of those being served are new to the system) but, across the country, they’re underfunded, understaffed, and understocked. Meanwhile, farmers are donating many tons of food but they’re finding it costly to harvest and distribute the food they can’t sell.

The Agriculture Department could step in to purchase the surplus food from farmers and deliver it to needy families. However, within the Trump administration, Secretary Sonny Perdue has been very slow to respond. As a result,

The scale of produce waste is staggering. Farmers in Florida, which provides much of the fresh produce to the eastern half of the U.S. during the winter and spring, left about 75 percent of the lettuce crop unharvested, along with significant portions of the state’s sweet corn, cabbage and squash. Up to 250 million pounds of tomatoes could end up left in the fields, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services. Florida officials estimate produce growers there have taken a half a billion dollar hit. In California, the industry is projected to lose more than $1 billion per month.

A fourth possibility is for an army of volunteers to pick and pack food that is ripening in the fields. And that’s what they’re beginning to do in Florida—they’re gleaning. For example, farmer Hank Scott

invited volunteer pickers with the Society of St. Andrew, a Christian hunger relief organization, to glean as much produce as they could and donate it to nearby food banks. Anything green they left behind will likely be plowed back into the ground, feeding no one and adding to the farm’s ballooning losses. . .

As the gleaners rescue vegetable after vegetable, they are both a final lifeline for desperate families and a sign of just how badly the novel coronavirus has kneecapped the systems that are supposed to keep everyone fed.

 

Because of that story, I was reminded of French Avant-garde filmmaker Agnes Varda, who focused her lens on the activity of gleaning in her remarkable 2000 film, The Gleaners and I. Beginning with Jean-François Millet’s famous depiction of “The Gleaners,” Varda documents the history (dating back to a 1554 French law that allows “the poor, the wretched, the deprived” to enter the fields once the harvest is over, and take what they wish) and current forms of gleaning (collecting the odd-shaped potato, the overripe fig, or the damaged apple and “dumpster-diving” for the supermarket product whose “sell by” date has passed). She also ruminates on her own activity as a filmmaker who, during the course of making the film, gleans from and with her diverse subjects, including rural drifters, homeless alcoholics, gypsy families living in trailers, a chef who gleans because he “likes to know where his food comes from,” and young punks who live on the street. These are all people who insist on finding a use for what capitalism has determined it has no use for.

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As it turns out, the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School has created the National Gleaning Project, a clearinghouse for gleaning and food recovery-related information. They have compiled information on gleaning and food-recovery organizations in 46 states plus the District of Columbia, along with a directory of relevant federal and state laws, and conducted a series of research reports. While the two terms are often conflated, and there are many different activities included under the rubric of gleaning and food recovery, the Project emphasizes

the main intent of the practice [which] is to recover surplus food for distribution to food insecure populations, meaning there is a charitable dimension to the act.

It’s that charitable dimension—the gift, if you will—that takes gleaning and other related activities (including field gleaning, wholesale produce salvage, perishable and prepared food rescue, and non-perishable food donations, collection, and recovery) beyond capitalism.** They are all ways of reducing waste and providing food to those who need it outside a system based on private property, wage-labor, and markets. In other words, gleaning and food recovery serve both to challenge the irrationality of the capitalist food system and to create a real alternative.***

And right now, in the midst of the senselessness of widespread hunger and massive amounts of food going to waste, we need more than ever to question and escape the logic of capitalism and make sure Americans get the food they need.

 

*Considering all people in the world affected by moderate levels of food insecurity together with those who suffer from hunger, it is estimated that over 2 billion people do not have regular access to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food, including 8 percent of the population in Northern America and Europe.

**In France, since 2015, supermarkets are required by law to be charitable—to donate all unsold but edible food to charities for immediate distribution to the poor.

***There is one glaring exception: gleaning will not solve the Jungle-like problems in American meat plants. As I see it, the only alternative is to give workers a say in how meat is processed and how their labor is organized.

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