According to activist Joel Berg, ten percent of US households, or 35.5 million people, were “food insecure” — that’s Bush-speak for hungry — in 2006. As the Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and a short-term Department of Agriculture bigwig under Bill Clinton, Berg understands the positive role government can play in ameliorating poverty. His excellent, if statistic-heavy, analysis of 50 years of domestic food policies, All You Can Eat, slams the demonization of the poor as malingerers and lambastes the racism and sexism that underscore this media-reinforced stereotype.
Berg is critical of food stamp requirements that make applicants feel like criminals, and he’s outraged that food banks and soup kitchens have been expected to pick up the slack for federal inaction. “Trying to end hunger with food drives is like trying to fill the Grand Canyon with a teaspoon,” he quips.
Instead of relying on private philanthropy to stem need, Berg posits government shifts to help America’s poor. “For a community to have good nutrition, three things need to happen,” he writes. “Food must be affordable; food must be available; and individuals and families must have enough education to know how to eat better.”
He recommends serving breakfast and lunch to every child in every public school, regardless of income; streamlining the food stamp application process and ending the fingerprinting of applicants; upping eligibility for benefits to include those living at 185 percent of federal poverty guidelines, or $32,500 for a household of three; and urges the business community to pay living wages to employees so that full-time workers are not impoverished. He further supports consolidating state, local and federal antipoverty programs to avoid overlap and minimize bureaucracy.
“We can end food insecurity for the cost of what the government spends on a year of agribusiness subsidies, three months of war in Iraq, or six percent of President George W. Bush’s tax cuts,” Berg concludes. The pricetag, $24 billion, is hefty, but national security demands nothing less.