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Breadline USA: Why People Are Going Hungry in the Land of Plenty

America's poor are being priced out of a market flush with excess eatables. It's an abomination we can fix.

From Breadline USA: The Hidden Scandal of American Hunger and How to Fix It© 2009 by Sasha Abramsky. Reprinted with permission from PoliPointPress, LLC, Sausalito, CA.

When the Month is Longer Than the Money

Billy MacPherson believed that for many of her friends and pantry clientele “the months are longer than the money.” What little income they brought in each month— from work, from Social Security or disability checks, in food stamps or welfare payments— was never quite enough to last a full four-plus weeks. And so they faced an unpalatable choice: try to stretch the family budget to cover the whole month, which involved scrimping on food and missing meals throughout the entire period, or eat semi-decently for the first two or three weeks of the month and pray that something, somehow, would come about to tide them through the lean times at the end.

Once gas prices started going up, food prices also headed north— at least in part because so much corn and arable land was diverted into biofuel production in response to the energy crunch; in part, too, because oil-based fertilizers soared in price and inflation took root throughout the broader economy. In the last years of George W. Bush’s presidency, that lean period at the end of each month began to grow. Instead of a few days, it became a week; then it became ten days, even two weeks. For low-income Americans, wages and government checks lagged far behind inflation, leaving them little choice but to watch as month after month their never particularly munificent purchasing power collapsed.

In the years following 2005, as the price of staples such as wheat and rice more than doubled, deadly food riots broke out in Bangladesh, Haiti, Cameroon, Yemen, Mexico, Egypt, Burkina Faso, and several other countries. People earning one or two dollars a day were facing starvation caused not by drought or plagues of locusts but by the workings of the international commodities market. In some nations, governments were brought to their knees by the disturbances; in others, panicked ministers met in emergency sessions to limit crop exports and try to shore up their populaces’ food supplies.

By 2008 America’s impoverished classes were, albeit to a lesser extent, facing a similar price-induced hunger. Unlike the destitute of countries such as Ethiopia and the Sudan, who too often went hungry because crops failed and what little food the was got bought up by their richer neighbors, America’s poor were being priced out of a market flush with excess eatables. Theirs was a hunger amid plenty, an inability to buy their way to seats at the most food-laden table in history. At the same time as hungry Milwaukee residents— on false rumors of free food deliveries— were fighting each other for access to hoped-for supplies in the spring of 2008, at the same time as immigrant shoppers in many neighborhoods were stampeding to buy up large bags of rice in the face of rising prices, hot dog–eating and fried asparagus–eating competitions were gaining in popularity from the Coney Island boardwalk in New York to the agricultural town of Stockton, California. One visit to any of these binge-eating orgies would have been enough to put paid to the notion that American hunger, twenty-first-century style, was in any way about the country as a whole facing food shortages. Yes, food prices were rising, but they were rising due to increased energy costs and growing global demand for American food exports rather than in response to a collapse in the nation’s food supply. The country’s growing epidemic of hunger was less a symptom of food market contractions and more one of the stealth spread of poverty and inflation into more and more corners of American life.

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