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 on here?

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 background.


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 do.

* 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 meet.

* 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 Class.

Now the same thing is happening in the United States, a fact obscured by rosy offficial economic reports that lump rich and poor together.


What does the Pledge of Allegiance sound like on an empty stomach?

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 reform").

* 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 growing poverty.

* 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

Democracy watch

Economics watch