Could you eat on a budget of just $1.40 per meal?
On 1 November, one in seven people living in the US woke up to a dramatically changed food budget, courtesy of the expiration of an aid extension in the Relief Act of 2009. People relying on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) found that they would be receiving much less per month, with the possibility of even deeper cuts in the future depending on Congressional wrangling. Cuts ranged from $11 USD to $36 USD, depending on family size, which may not sound significant to those with stable incomes living in a state of food security, but could mean the world to low-income people.
These cuts are taking place within a larger framework of austerity in the US. The government claims it will save $5 billion USD next year as a result of these cuts, but are these really savings? And why haven’t the SNAP cuts been storming the media, given the fact that they will be directly affecting so many families? More critically yet, why hasn’t food security become a major rallying point for feminism and social justice movements in the United States?
While the popular faces of feminism debated pubic hair grooming, the latest pop culture scandal, and the current memes on Tumblr, people on the streets were running out of money for food—already, despite the fact that November wasn’t even halfway over. And while activists concerned about food justice, especially women of colour, were fighting to highlight the issue and tie it in with larger social problems, many of them were speaking into a vacuum. Food justice, it seems, doesn’t attract as many pageviews as arguing about heels.
Food security in the United States is a huge issue. As part of its surveillance mission, the USDA tracks food security throughout the year, looking at emerging statistics and trends. Almost 15% of US households reported some level of food insecurity (‘reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake’) during the last year, with a little over 5% reporting very low food security.
Hunger comes at a high cost, particularly for children, who tend to bear the brunt of food insecurity issues because of the large number of children living in poverty in the US. Growing children require stable sources of nutrition for healthy development, including physical and cognitive development—those living in food insecure households can develop lifelong health problems. Hunger is also a problem in educational environments, where hungry children have difficulty focusing, concentrating, and learning, which is one reason why nutrition assistance programs in school environments are so important.
Many parents receiving nutrition assistance report that they often go hungry to feed their children, both out of a sense of obligation and because they have concerns about the health of their children. In low-income communities, parents are also more likely to be providing care for grandchildren in addition to their own children, and may also be offering support for friends and neighbours. The same community networks that help low-income communities survive can be devastating in this context, as cuts to food aid don’t consider the complexity of low-income households and who may be sitting at the dinner table each night.
Even for fully-developed, healthy adults, food insecurity poses a significant problem. Hunger creates significant psychological stress and prolonged malnutrition can led to a variety of health issues, all of which come with significant costs in the long term. While the government touts its $5 billion savings, the right hand may not know what the left hand is doing, as the SNAP cuts are undoubtedly going to lead to increases in Medicaid expenditures, school nutrition programmes, and other government benefits intended to provide support for low-income residents of the US.
Food aid is very much a social justice issue, as it is heavily embedded with issues of class, race, and gender. People of colour in the United States are far more likely to experience food insecurity as part of a larger framework that creates increased poverty rates in their communities. They’re also more likely to experience health problems that might result in the need for specialised nutrition, thanks to environmental racism and racial bias within the medical community—for example, Black women experience lower diagnosis rates of breast cancer and are often diagnosed later than their white counterparts.
The right for all people to access healthy, fresh food in abundance and variety should be a basic human right, as should the right to be able to exercise preference when it comes to food and to make educated choices about what to eat and when. For many low-income people in the United States, these choices have been taken away by a confluence of factors. Food deserts make it difficult to access a variety of fresh food. Poverty makes it hard to afford food, or to afford housing that permits people to cook, refrigerate, and freeze food. Being forced to work multiple jobs due to shockingly low minimum wage laws makes it challenging to prepare food and spend time with families. Food has in many senses become a luxury of the rich, instead of a fundamental right, and while some social justice movements and some feminists have begun to address the cause of food justice, it hasn’t been an important part of many conversations.
Perhaps this isn’t surprising—media and pop culture rarely touch upon food security issues. Despite the wide scope of the SNAP cuts and their potential implications, few media organisations covered them at all, let alone in any depth, leaving many people unaware of the issue. While casual media consumers may be tangentially aware that some sort of cut to food assistance has occurred, they aren’t aware of how many people were affected by the cut, how large the cut was, or the fact that further cuts are looming.
As with cuts to disability services in many states, the SNAP cuts are likely to prove fatal for some recipients of aid, and this is an issue that has also remained unaddressed in many circles. The United States government would rather starve citizens out than provide them with basic food assistance, and, strikingly, it appears that many onlookers are complacent when it comes to the issue.
Within the larger context of austerity, it’s notable that the cuts aren’t just affecting the people who need help obtaining stable sources of food. They’re also a problem for businesses relying on SNAP funds as a source of income; one benefit of such programs is their ripple effect in low-income communities, as recipients spend their benefits in various establishments and spread funds locally. Farmers’ markets are likely to be particularly hard-hit, as many had just started with pilot programs accepting SNAP funds, making it possible to extend farmers’ markets into low-income communities and provide fresh produce to consumers. Without SNAP funds, some farmers may need to reconsider the cost-effectiveness of being active in low-income communities.
Furthermore, charitable organizations, already struggling to meet the needs of a growing number of hungry, homeless, jobless people in the US, are facing an even bigger burden. Since the Bush Administration, the United States has increasingly taken on the stance that charities should be responsible for many tasks formerly allocated to the government, thus washing its hands of the responsibility of overseeing the welfare of all citizens. In 2008, that philosophy proved particularly catastrophic when the economy crashed and so did the sources of assistance for many charitable organisations, which depend on help from the public to support their clients.
Food banks, providers of emergency housing, and other assistance programs are fighting to keep their heads above water, and this month, more clients are already flooding in as the SNAP cuts eat into monthly food budgets. While such facilities are struggling to feed people and run programs intended to provide people with information and tools to help them survive, the government appears happy to let them founder. Given that the coldest months of the year are rapidly approaching, the context of the SNAP cuts appears particularly callous—and calculated—as many people will be faced with choices like paying for heating versus buying food this winter.
These are all feminist and social justice issues. Notably, the feminists most outspoken on the subject of food justice subjects are typically those who either are experiencing food insecurity currently, or have experienced it in the past—those who are acutely familiar with the tension and stress of trying to balance limited sources of nutrition. As with other social causes, though, in order to be successful, the food justice movement must include support from people who don’t have personal experiences with the issues involved. People must be driven to care about experiences outside their own and to work in solidarity on something that may not offer any obvious benefits for them. For those who have never been hungry and probably never will be, there may be no clear argument for fighting hunger, but the argument is intrinsic in the fact that hunger is a human right, and no one, ever, should go to bed with an empty stomach, or jittering with stress about where the next meal will come from.
Important work is being done on the ground level by organisers working both to meet immediate food security needs and on long-term food justice issues. Connecting with these organisers on a community level creates opportunities for learning and working in solidarity, although it may not offer the same performative pleasure of lively hashtag campaigns on Twitter. Feminism and social justice movements need to make some important larger decisions about their shape and nature; do they want to engage in displays for public approval, or get work done? And are they ready to work in solidarity, or would they prefer to label themselves ‘allies’ and leave it at that?