In 1933, in the height of the Depression, U.S. hunger was so severe that people were forced to dig up roots to eat in Central Park, breadlines were commonplace nationwide, and some even took up arms to secure food. Said the President of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, Daniel Willard: “I’d steal before I’d starve.”
Simultaneously, farmers nationwide were being driven out of business because a combination of a food surplus and a drop in purchasing power of the populace led to plummeting food prices. In response, Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace tried to raise the price of pork by ordering the mass destruction of pigs. However, after Wallace received withering criticism, President Franklin Roosevelt overruled him and ordered the mass distribution of pork to low-income Americans.
Today, the nation faces another combined food waste and hunger crises.
Child hunger is soaring across America during the current health and economic crises, with 37 percent of parents nationwide cutting the size of meals or skipping meals for their children because they did not have enough money for food, according to a poll of more than 1,000 U.S. residents nationwide by Hunger Free America. That’s five-fold hike in child hunger since 2018, caused by the loss of tens of millions of school meals each day coupled with a massive reduction in income for parents.
Adult hunger has more than doubled. Applications for federal food assistance are soaring and food banks and food pantries nationwide are being overwhelmed, both by Americans who have recently become even hungrier and by those unable to afford food for the first time.
Malnutrition compromises human immune systems, which means that hungry people are more likely to contract and transmit the virus, and also be more vulnerable to food-borne infections. Hunger and obesity are often flip sides of the same malnutrition coin, since healthy food is usually more costly and less readily available than more nutritious food in low-income neighborhoods and towns. Because heavily processed food (packed with extra sugar and sodium) is now usually cheaper and easier to store and transport, impoverished Americans who must especially rely on them now also face the increased likelihood of diabetes and heart disease, which will increase their risk from dying of COVID-19.
Food waste is troubling in the best of time, but given current hunger epidemic, it’s particularly shocking to see dairies dumping milk and farmers discarding good produce. This ongoing food destruction is a caused by many factors, including a disconnect in the food supply and processing chain, which is a significant challenge in normal times but a catastrophic problem now. Simply put, much of the raw milk and vegetables recently produced in America were in forms designed for large food service establishments and restaurants (most of which are now closed), but not easily handled by grocery stores and food charities that are still open.
On April 17, USDA announced that it will purchase $3 billion in fresh produce, dairy, and meat and then provide that food to charities. That an important first step, and states with large agricultural surpluses should do the same.
Such efforts will help, but they will only scratch the surface of the ongoing need during this crisis, and do little to fix the long-term, structural problems in our food system, in which low-income areas that lack access to nutritious foods at affordable prices — so-called “food deserts” — tend to be the same communities and neighborhoods that, even in better economic times, are also job deserts that lack sufficient living-wage employment.
In 2010, the Progressive Policy Institute published a report calling for a “Good Food, Good Jobs” initiative to bolster U.S. employment and aid the environment by creating more local and regional food processing plants to reduce the distance between where food is produced and where it is consumed. Such an effort is now needed more urgently than ever.
A Good Food, Good Jobs program should incentivize partnerships between the federal government and state, local, and tribal governments, nonprofit organizations, and the private sector, in order to:
• Bolster local and regional food processing, especially for dairy and produce, in a manner that best maintains freshness and ensures food safety, while limiting added sugar and salt. While some crops, such as citrus fruits, can only be grown in certain parts of the nation and thus must be shipped long distances to get to consumers, foods that are grown in varied regions shouldn’t need to be trucked across the country for processing, especially when they are then trucked-back for sale. Since there is far more profit in processing food than in simply growing it (and since farming is only a seasonal occupation), the initiative should focus on supporting food businesses that add value year-round, such as neighborhood food processing/freezing/canning plants; businesses that turn raw produce into ready-to-eat salads, salad dressings, sandwiches, and other products; healthy vending-machine companies; and affordable and nutritious restaurants and catering businesses. Subsidized businesses should be required to pay their workers a living wage and their suppliers fair prices, and to give some of this food for free to charities.
• Increase federal funding for SNAP (formerly called Food Stamp) benefits to give low-income Americans more food purchasing power.
• Enable dairy and produce farmers to sell their products online for home delivery and to be able to accept SNAP and WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) benefits online.
• Expand community-based technical assistance from government agencies to food projects. Government should also support those projects by buying their products for school meals, for jails, military facilities, hospitals, and concession stands in public parks, etc. Additionally, the AmeriCorps national service program should provide large numbers of national service participants to nonprofit groups implementing food jobs projects.
• Develop a better way of measuring success. USDA should develop a “food access index,” a new measure that would take into account both the physical availability and economic affordability of nutritious foods, and use this measure as a key tool to judge the success of food projects.
• Implement a focused research agenda. Research should seek to answer such questions as: Can community food enterprises that pay their workers sufficient wages and produce healthier foods make products that are affordable? Can they become economically self-sufficient over the long run?
While some of these steps could be taken rapidly to meet our immediate challenges, most will take years to implement. But it will be well worth it, since they will make us far more prepared for future crises, and will produce an affordable food supply that works better for consumers, the environment, farmers, and workers alike.
Let’s finally learn from our past national mistakes to ensure that our food supply goes into stomachs rather than dumpsters.
Dan Glickman is a former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and U.S. Representative from Kansas, and is now a vice president of the Aspen Institute, and a Senior Fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Joel Berg is the former USDA Coordinator and Community Food Security, and is now CEO of Hunger Free America, a nationwide direct service and advocacy organization.