Food insecurity has become a fact of life in America. A grinding economic recession coupled with sharp cutbacks in local and state government spending has resulted in a dramatic crisis in the most necessary of acts – eating. According to a Nov. 2009 report by the US Department of Agriculture, 50 million or 1 in 6 Americans, struggled to feed themselves and their children in 2008. This is the highest number of people facing food insecurity since the first study of its kind was conducted in 1995 and an increase of 3.5% from 2007. Food deprivation is not, as in many parts of the underdeveloped world, chronic, but those impacted face periodic cutbacks and shortages of essential food.
Children were particularly at risk, as nearly 200,000 more households with children slipped into the food insecure category since 2007. Unemployment, low wage jobs, declines in food pantry supplies and cuts in state and local food programs, all produced negative outcomes for children. As the economic downturn moves from crisis to permanent reality, a frightening question emerges. Who will feed our children?
Child Nutrition as Budgetary Football
If it is up to Democrats in Connecticut children will be fed a little. Republicans, a little less. The wrangling that occurred around this year’s Connecticut state budget offers ample evidence of the precariousness of children’s food security inside of an economic recession. Republican Governor M. Jodi Rell proposed to slash the state’s Healthy Food Program for children by more than $2 million per year or 50% of its annual budget. The Healthy Food Program was designed to improve the types of food offered by school meal programs by replacing processed and high-sodium foods with fresh vegetables. 114 school districts participate and were rewarded with an extra ten cents for every school lunch served to insure improved nutrition. Cities such as New Haven received more than $280,000 per year in funding to raise the nutritional levels of school meals. Such school meal programs feed thousands of children each year, of whom, according to End Hunger.
Connecticut one in five under the age of twelve are hungry or at risk of going hungry. School officials claim school lunch is the only meal of the day for many children.
Democrats, of course, led the charge against Rell’s proposal to gut the program. Senator Martin Looney presented the question as one of asking “students to sacrifice instead of millionaires.” Seemingly infuriated, Dems even took to holding a press conference to blast Rell in a community garden, surrounded by kale and tomato plants. However, a closer examination of the Democrats budget proposals reveals that they propose a nearly equally devastating 25% cut to the Healthy Food Program. Neither Democrats nor Republicans seem to have much interest in the fate of Connecticut’s hungry children. Both seem willing to horse trade away childhood nutrition in a state where, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, income inequality has grown rapidly in the past two decades.
Eating Away at the State
As the Connecticut case illustrates, the quality and availability of food for children is linked to funding for state and local programs. Unfortunately, it is these very same local budgets that have been among the hardest hit by the recent economic recession and nearly two decades of neoliberal approaches to taxation. Taxation rates for the top 5% of income earners declined rapidly on state, local and federal levels, first in the 1980s and then again in the late 1990s, as market fundamentalist ideology took hold. The massive economic crisis that ensued in 2008 merely antagonized the existing trends toward state insolvency. Food programs for children, especially those administered through schools, have become ripe targets for budget cutters both Democrat and Republican.
Proposals for state and local budget cuts are almost universal in America these days. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that 42 states have enacted cutbacks in the last year. Healthcare, services to the elderly and education are the three main targets. At least 26 states are implementing cuts to K-12 education programs, including Illinois whose cuts will make more than 10,000 children ineligible for early childhood education and Massachusetts, which carried out deep cuts on a number of early care programs. It should be remembered that each of these cuts serves to distance a child from what is often a main source of nutrition – school food programs.
Most of these children will then have to rely on private food pantries that are often run by religious organizations. This strategy has been a part of government planning since the first Clinton presidency that “ended welfare as we know it,” by gutting government-based assistance programs. The trend away from the state was later institutionalized by President George W. Bush as a part of his “faith-based initiatives” program. Bush argued that religious institutions should be allowed to compete for government contracts, especially in regard to social programs. This jibed with the Clinton and Bush notion that private-sector volunteerism and philanthropy could resolve social problems – the charitable flip-side of market fundamentalism.
Now the returns are in. Deep income inequality, gutted state and local welfare plans and stagnant wages produce only one social outcome – millions of people forced into precarious positions. As volunteers at the Interfaith Emergency Services and Warehouse in Ocala, Florida are finding out, no amount of charitable contributions can make up for such stark structural inequalities. After demand for food increased more than 400% since 2007, the pantry instituted a new rule that limits families to one visit for food every 60, instead of 30, days. Despite the restriction, pantry managers describe the lack of food as “downright scary.” Directors at the nearby Brother’s Keeper pantry forced recipients to choose between getting a food basket for Thanksgiving or Christmas. 125 families chose Thanksgiving and 175 Christmas. Such brutal decisions are being made all over the country and children are often forced to bear the brunt of them.
A Socialist Twist – Unleash the Working Class
Current President Barack Obama has promised to end child hunger by 2015. However, things have gone backwards in his first year with even more children facing the excruciating pain of going to bed hungry. How can this problem be solved? The relatively mainstream Food Research and Action Center offers an interesting seven point plan. Top of their list is the need to break through an economy built on low-wage employment. “Good jobs with benefits,” they argue, “will help many more families fully meet their children’s needs.” To help accomplish this, they recommend the extension of earned income tax credits to low income households so that these workers may keep more of their meager salaries. A more radical plan seems in order.
There is no greater insurance of good jobs than a militant trade union movement. Building power on our worksites will, far more than temporary state-based programs for relief or private charities, create a positive social dynamic leading to more permanent increases in wages and an extension of benefits. The passage of the Employee Free Choice Act would allow more working people to gain unions representation in order to secure the wages necessary to better feed their children. This combined with iron-clad commitments to fund social welfare programs, particularly those targeted at child food programs, and a Federal jobs-for-all program to sop up unemployment, promises to put a major dent in food insecurity. Unleashing the power of working people to create a more just society through their own self-activity would also mean issuing a death sentence to the ideology that has starved our children – neoliberalism. Only then will we know that our children, all our children, will be fed.