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Can't we just go to the American people and say, this is what we're doing and this is how it would work and this is why we hope you will support it? Americans are extraordinarily generous.

Anti-hunger activist Joel Berg 

On feeding America's poor

click to enlarge All-You-Can-Eat.gif

One recent Friday, a woman named Cathy stood in line with approximately 200 people to eat lunch at the community kitchen of Urban Ministries of Durham. Cathy is disabled but works part time. About three weeks ago, she moved out of the organization's overnight shelter into a boarding house where she paid $400 for this month's rent, plus a $200 deposit. That ate up the entire $600 she gets in federal assistance each month. She also gets $28 a month in food stamps—barely enough to buy milk and bread each week. So if Cathy wants to eat, she comes here. The food is good, and the portions generous. UMD offers three meals a day, 365 days a year, in exchange for only a name and birthdate. Those are for tracking demand, which is rising as the economy worsens. In November, UMD served nearly 15,500 meals.

Cathy is one of 36.2 million Americans who struggle with hunger. Many are working people, and more than 12 million are children whose parents make tough choices week after week about whether to pay bills or buy groceries. While anti-hunger advocate Joel Berg says soup kitchens and food banks are essential, he says nonprofits will never be able to replace the federal safety net.

Berg is executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and served for eight years in the U.S. Department of Agriculture until his job was eliminated in what he describes as a political maneuver by the Bush administration. Politics have also gutted successful programs like food stamps and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), creating bureaucratic hurdles designed to render them inaccessible and ineffective—thereby perpetuating the myth that they don't work. (To get that $28 in food stamps, Cathy has to jump through a lot of hoops.)

Berg's book, All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America?, is a remarkably readable political history of hunger in 20th-century America and an impassioned, opinionated proposal for how to end it. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Berg says there is a way to eliminate hunger in the United States: Increase federal government aid.

Every year around the holidays, the media—including this newspaper—run stories about hunger. They're usually about how grateful people are to get their holiday turkey or soup kitchen meal, and the message is, isn't it great people are chipping in? You talk about how charity provides society with a "moral escape valve."

It's amazing how many times you see the faces and stories of volunteers and rarely the stories of why people are there, particularly the public policy reasons. They say, this person became homeless. They don't then say, by the way, the federal government has slashed Section 8 housing.

If they seem to be people like you and me, then they're sort of sympathetic. If they're just run-of-the-mill poor people, it doesn't really trouble us quite as much. People need to really take a good, hard look at how much as a society we've focused on making volunteers and donors feel good, versus whether this is really working.

Why do you say federal government programs are the most effective way to deal with hunger?

Government programs in the past were extraordinarily effective in reducing the worst impact of hunger. A great North Carolina native, Dr. Raymond Wheeler, went to Mississippi in the late 1960s and found Third World-style malnutrition. After the growth of the federal nutrition assistance safety net, you just didn't have that mass-style starvation. The War on Poverty reduced the poverty rate by half between 1960 and 1974. We've been sold this bill of goods that none of this stuff ever worked, therefore we should never try big government solutions again.

We have this incredible myth in America that government's always wasteful and nonprofits are always efficient. Nationwide, there are relatively few federal employees administering the federal food stamp program. The entire food and nutrition service at USDA has about 700 employees. I calculate there's actually less overhead in the food stamp program than in your average charitable food distribution program.

We've sloughed off this major social program onto these underfunded nonprofit groups, and it's just not working. Ending hunger with canned food drives is like trying to fill the Grand Canyon with a teaspoon.

It should be powerful government without necessarily a big bureaucracy. In my time at USDA, I learned two things: Without government programs, people would be starving and they wouldn't have running water. But I also learned there are too many employees filling out paperwork and not enough focus on directly aiding people.

Forget the philosophy, forget the ideology and let's talk pure practical logistics: If you doubled charitable food distribution in America, you'd barely dent the problem. And yet, if you only increased the scope, size and reach of the federal nutrition safety net by 41 percent, you could entirely end the problem.

How much will that cost?

I calculated that we could entirely end hunger in America by spending an extra $24 billion a year. It's about 2 percent of the Wall Street bailout, 6 percent of the president's tax cuts, three months of war with Iraq, or approximately what we spend on agribusiness subsidies.

It costs the nation $90 billion a year to have this problem. Our economy loses three times as much as it would cost to fix the problem. But unlike some on the pure left, I don't say it's the government's responsibility alone to fix it.

President-elect Barack Obama caught flak during the campaign for a plan to fund faith-based organizations.

Some of that was just a knee-jerk reaction to Bush. [Bush] totally bungled the faith-based initiative, he hijacked it for political purposes and it did very little other than try to get him re-elected in 2004.

That doesn't mean the idea is wrong. There are over 40,000 soup kitchens and food pantries out there. The question isn't whether these agencies are going to get involved in hunger or not; they're already involved. The question isn't whether they're going to get government aid; they already get government aid. The question is whether they're going to be effective or not and get the help they need.

They should be seen as additive, not a replacement for government efforts. They shouldn't get government money to proselytize or discriminate; Obama's clear on that. And they should focus on what nonprofits do best, which is innovation, generating volunteers. They shouldn't be relied upon to provide the fundamental services like food and housing and health care.

We have an active farm-to-table movement here in N.C. What potential do you see for that movement connecting with the anti-hunger movement?

The leaders of a national group called the Community Food Security Coalition are very focused on poverty issues. But some of the more popular [farm-to-table] spokespeople can be extraordinarily out of it to when it comes to hunger. Alice Waters, whose restaurants charge more than $60 per meal, said of poor people who can't afford the most nutritious food, they should just buy one less pair of Nikes. I agree with much of Michael Pollan's critique of corporate agriculture and of how we're subsidizing corn syrup, but he seems to have a blind eye when it comes to working-class people. He's continually said that increases in food prices are a good thing because it's going to force a change in the international food system. Whether it forces a change or not, the bottom line is people who can't afford enough food are now having to pay more.

If we agree on the bigger picture of a just and sustainable world where people can eat more nutritious food, let's really look at how we can promote this. For instance, increasing the use of food stamps at farmers' markets and CSAs and increasing community gardens, but not creating the false impression that community gardens are going to solve a massive problem that affects 36.2 million Americans.

I'm in favor of anything that increases choices for low-income families. The only thing poor people have less of than money is choices. Once we've made food more physically available and affordable in low-income neighborhoods, then we can have a serious discussion about nutrition education.

Your plan, which not all anti-hunger advocates agree with, is to streamline all federal programs, including food stamps and WIC, into one plan with one set of requirements and paperwork.

I think progressives really have to challenge themselves to once again be for reform and not just for the status quo. There are folks that are very good personal friends of mine who are worried that if they open up the debate about these programs at all, it will get even worse, that people who are against the interests of poor people will hijack the debate and use it to shaft them.

If there's one program, it can be cut in one fell swoop.

That is true. On the other hand, if you have over a dozen programs like you have today, they're harder to increase.

This really resonates with people across the political spectrum. I've done interviews with some pretty conservative radio shows and this is one issue the left and the right can unite on. There are an awful lot of very conservative evangelical Christians who are very concerned about hunger and poverty.

Can't we just go to the American people and say, this is what we're doing and this is how it would work and this is why we hope you will support it? Americans are extraordinarily generous.

I'm asking people to not just think with their heart when they think of this issue, but to think with their head, really think logically about the scope of the problem and what can fix it.

Berg reads Wednesday, Dec. 17, at 7:30 p.m. at Raleigh's Quail Ridge Books. The event is co-sponsored by the Interfaith Food Shuttle and the Food Bank of Eastern and Central North Carolina.

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