ShouId America be measured by its 3.5 million
millionaires or by its 30 million hungry?
from Food First
The Nation magazine, September 28, 1998
The stock market has soared beyond any reasonable expectation.
So has hunger among Americans-up 50% since 1985. What's going
For twenty-three years, the Institute for Food and Development
Policy-Food First, co-founded by Diet for a Small Planet author
Frances Moore Lappe, has studied hunger in the world's poorest
countries. Now we're uncovering the same dynamics of suffering
operating here at home.
We want to share our findings with you because effective action
must be grounded in understanding, no matter how much the analysis
might be at odds with conventional wisdom. There is something
we can and must do about hunger in America, the wealthiest nation
on Earth. Before we tell you what that is, though, here's some
Hunger is caused by poverty, not scarcity.
The first thing to know is that hunger is not an accident,
in the U.S. or anywhere else. There is no scarcity of food in
the world. Certainly there's no shortage here in America.
The other thing to remember about hunger is that the well-off
in every country never go hungry, even in a famine; the poorest
* According to a study prepared for the U.S. Congress, more
than thirty million Americans-one in nine-are hungry, unable to
buy food for themselves and their families for some part of each
month. Twelve million (40%) of America's hungry are children.
* The number of hungry people in America has increased by
half since 1985. This coincides with the longest uninterrupted
run of prosperity in modern American history. The explanation?
While the economy has expanded, fewer Americans have benefited.
Most new wealth has gone to the top-most tier of Americans. Yes,
unemployment is low-but the working poor can no longer make ends
* Growing income disparity explains the increase in hunger.
We have seen this same phenomenon in Third World countries-a highconsumption
elite, a struggling and shrinking middle-class, a growing Hunger
Now the same thing is happening in the United States, a fact
obscured by rosy offficial economic reports that lump rich and
What does the Pledge of Allegiance sound like on an empty
The second thing to know about hunger is that public policy
does have a real, concrete effect, for both good and evil.
* If the public refuses to tolerate widespread hunger, we
can act through government to provide relief measures, as the
U.S. has done many times since the Great Depression of the 1930's.
But if hunger is hidden, government may cut back on food assistance
programs and make the problem worse. That's exactly what has happened
in the U.S. since 1985 (the latest cutback was called "welfare
* The growing number of hungry people in America should make
anyone question triumphal offficial reports on the national economy.
Clearly, the economy has twisted, disparities have deepened, inequalities
widened. "Prosperity" has become an excuse for ignoring
* Sure, there are more millionaires than ever in the U.S.
But for every new millionaire, there are countless new hungry
people for whom $100 or $200 a month in Food Stamps is the only
safeguard against malnutrition, even starvation.
* Because the mass media is aimed at the people with the highest
disposable income, we see pictures of hunger overseas, but not
our own. Perhaps that's a reason why the growth of the Hunger
Class has been ignored politically. Another is that the richest
have sealed themselves off. Gated communities, private security
guards, tank-like luxury SUV's with tinted windows-all these allow
the more fortunate to bypass the reality of hunger in America.
* The price of hunger, including its costs in educational
performance and public health, is excruciating. But instead of
publicly investing the relatively little needed to prevent hunger,
the wealthy spend more and more, privately, to shield themselves
from the results of hunger.
To end hunger in the U.S., we should subscribe to global standards
of minimal human rights.
The U.S. prides itself on protecting individual rights, what
we usually think of as "human rights." But we may be
the only country in the world that blames the individual for being
too poor to eat, and pretends there are no political solutions
to economic injustice. As a result, we tolerate wider income disparities
and deeper levels of deprivation than any other advanced industrial
nation. For our children's sake, this must stop.
* Along with universal human rights like free speech and religious
tolerance, minimal standards of social and economic human rights
are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)
adopted by the United Nations half a century ago this year. These
include the right to food.
* American public policy violates the UDHR. In fact, one government
official recently admitted that the U.S. would refuse to support
the right to food because "welfare reform" would then
be in violation of internationallyaccepted human rights standards.
* Key economic indicators have proven inadequate and misleading
when it comes to the growing hunger problem America faces. We
need a new standard to measure our nation's economic and social
policies. Rather than invent one, sign on to our campaign: Economic
Human Rigbts: Tbe Time Has Come, to make the U.S. government live
up to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including the
right to food. Right now, the millionaires in the Senate decide
who gets to eat in the U.S. Let's be consistent in our support
of human rights by supporting the most basic human right of all
here at home.
Institute for Food and Development Policy-Food First
398 60th Street, Oakland, CA 94618