by Marion Nestle
Apr 9 2013

Let’s Ask Marion: Who’s got the power to end hunger in America?

This is one of those occasional Q and A’s with Kerry Trueman, this time in solidarity with Food Bloggers Against Hunger.  It’s posted here.

Trueman: We produce more than enough food in the U.S. to feed every man, woman and child. In fact, we’ve got such a surplus that we throw away almost half of it. But more than 47 million Americans — including roughly 16 million kids — struggle with hunger.

And with budget cuts undermining our food stamp program, aka SNAP, this problem’s only getting worse. Who has the power to change this shameful state of affairs, and how?

Nestle: I’ve just seen A Place at the Table (a film in which I briefly appear), which lays out today’s hunger problem in a particularly poignant way. It was clear from the film that its low-income participants had to deal with what is now called “food insecurity,” meaning that they couldn’t count on a reliable supply of adequate food on a daily basis and sometimes didn’t have enough to eat. But they also had to deal with another problem: the food that they did get was mostly junk food. So the question really should be worded somewhat differently: How can we ensure that everyone in America can afford enough healthy food?

I’m guessing that the makers of A Place at the Table intended it to do for the 2013 version of food insecurity what the CBS television documentary, Hunger in America, did in 1968. That film showed footage of children so starved and listless that they might as well have come from countries at war or refugee camps.

What seems impossible to imagine in 2013 is the effect of that documentary. It shocked the nation. Viewers were outraged that American adults and children did not have enough to eat. Within that year, President Nixon called a White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health to recommend programs and policies to end hunger, and Congress appointed the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs (the McGovern committee) to develop legislation. This worked. Food assistance and other programs reduced poverty and hunger. Our present-day WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) and SNAP (food stamp) programs are the legacy of that outrage.

Where is that outrage today? Without it, Congress can ignore the millions of people who depend on SNAP benefits and view the nearly $80 billion cost of those benefits as an enticing target for budget cutting.

Who has the power to do something decent about hunger? In a word, Congress. Unlike the situation under presidents Nixon, Kennedy, and Johnson — all of whom took decisive action to help the poor — hunger in America today is nothing but a pawn in Washington power politics. We have come to value personal responsibility at the expense of social responsibility. It’s hard for many Americans to think that we must be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers when our own economic status feels at risk.

If we can’t count on Congress to do the right thing, we have to try to create our own local food security and engage communities in helping to care for one another. This means advocacy and coalition-building on two levels: national and local. On the national level, it means exercising democratic rights as citizens to lobby congressional representatives to address poverty and its consequences no matter how futile that may seem. On the local level, it means working with community residents to address their needs. It means engaging the media to get the word out.

That’s where Food Bloggers Against Hunger can help. Your job is to generate outrage and to encourage your readers to take 30 seconds and send a letter to Congress asking them to support anti-hunger legislation. Go for it!

Follow Kerry Trueman on Twitter:  Marion Nestle is at

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  • Library Spinster

    I also saw A Place at the Table. What shocked me was that much of what comes from food banks, etc. is starchy, processed crap. When I worked at a branch in North Philadelphia, I saw some broccoli that a church was giving out. I don’t think broccoli heads ought to be pale green with yellow spots.

    As Marion observes, there’s a plethora of cheap junk food in some food desert areas. Bags of chips in all kinds of flavors. Off brand sodas in a rainbow of colors–I hesitate to say “flavors.”

  • The face of malnutrition in the late 1960s was, as you say, that of a child so starved that he or she might have been a war orphan or refugee. Unfortunately, due to the prevalence of cheap empty calories in the diets of the poor, malnutrition in 2013 too often looks like obesity. Images of overweight children aren’t nearly as compelling as images of emaciated children; it is too easy for the viewer to think, “Well, it doesn’t look like that kid has missed too many meals”, thereby missing the point that weight does not equal nutrition.

  • Thank you for supporting Food Bloggers Against Hunger! I appreciate you taking the time to post. Hopefullky 2013 will be the year that the tides start to turn.

  • james_smith

    Sadness is for poor people!

  • This is an interesting debate. The fact is, healthy natural foods are now more expensive that processed foods. Its also no coincidence that the highest concentrations of fast food restaurants are in poorer areas.

    “Who has the power to do something decent about hunger? In a word, Congress”

    Do not put your faith in politicians – they’re a symptom of the problem.We need to take responsibility for our own lives – that’s were true power really lies.

    Thanks for highlighting ‘A Place At The Table’ I’ll definitely check that out.

  • Richard Mahony

    ‘Our present-day WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) and SNAP (food stamp) programs are the legacy of that outrage.’ ~ Marion Nestle

    As are, in part, today’s rates of obesity and morbid obesity in the USA, especially amongst the poorest and most uneducated. Obesity and morbid obesity would disappear almost from the USA over the next two decades if the price of all food stuffs and beverages rose across the board by 20% over that same period. This would be the result of introducing a US federal VAT, at the rate of 20% that had no exceptions for any goods or services.

    The one thing on which almost all US economists on the monetarist right and on the Keynesian left agree is the benefits to the US economy, US businesses, US taxpayers, and US tax-payer funded programs of a federal VAT on all goods and services- just like those that every other first world economy has implemented. Interestingly, the one thing that unites almost all those on the left and the right amongst the US electorate, almost all of whom know or understand as much about economics as they do about theoretical physics, is their opposition to any such VAT.

    We know from small scale lab studies that the price elasticity of food and beverages in the US economy is likely to be somewhere between 0.5% and 1%, with some studies suggesting it’s about 0.8%. Assume for the moment for the sake of easy arithmetic and for numerically challenged readers that the value is 1%. In that case, then if food and drink were to rise across the board in the USA by 1%, we would expect to see a reduction of 1% in the total expenditure on food and drink by US temporary and permanent residents. Everything else being equal, this would lead to a 1% decrease in the calorific intake of the average American. A 10% increase in the cost of food and drink would lead to a reduction of roughly 10%; an increase of 20% to a reduction of roughly 20%. This assumes of course that the average consumer doesn’t switch to cheaper but higher energy foods and drinks.

    A reduction of 10% in the average calorific intake of every American over the next two decades would dramatically reduce the rates of obesity and of morbid obesity in the USA. The fiscal gains from the federal VAT raised on food and drink could be used to fund in the USA the best food stamps program the world has ever seen, together with a true US National Health Service that would put those in other countries like Canada, the UK and Australia to shame. But nobody, and I mean nobody, in the US medical community has even looked seriously at this option because nobody in that community appears to have even an elementary grasp of economics and of the effects on consumption of price and of opportunity cost.

    There is no educational, or pharmacological or psychological, or surgical or nutritional or exercise based solution to the problem of the escalating rates of obesity and morbid obesity in the USA. The solution has to be fiscally based. Introduce a federal VAT on all goods and services and observe the outcomes on reduced food and beverage consumption across the board.

  • Laura Collins

    I know we can’t just let people starve, but we have to have better regulations on food stamps. Maybe it would be beneficial if food stamps could only be used on healthy food since it may help with healthcare costs.

  • Agreed that malnutrition is not always about being too thin, but being obese. It’s nice that Food Bloggers Against Hunger exists.

  • Eric B

    A vat? Stupid idea. How is shuffling money through the hands of gov’t, who will take a 40 plus percent cut going to help anyone? That’s about as dumb a freedom stealing idea as I’ve ever heard of. Create more gov’t jobs[?] These folks will produce no food, but will eat plenty. Inefficient. Local food banks, Donations from farmers. Community gardens, these are the type of ideas that may help. Though nothing will be perfect in this system of things. Also wic and food stamps did not work or the problem would not be here now. No more gov’t welfare. LBJ was wrong.

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