Beverly Gologorsky

How it feels to be hungry and why food should be a basic right

Beverly Gologorsky: Hunger in America

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Congress passed legislation that, among other things, allowed all participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), known more popularly as the food stamp program, to "receive the maximum monthly benefit, regardless of income." That put extra food on the tables of so many poor families in this country and, as the New York Timesreported, "helped keep food insecurity at bay and cut poverty rates to a record low."

But ho-hum, as far as Congress is concerned, that's history. Crisis over and done with. (No matter, by the way, that more than 300 Americans are still dying daily of Covid-19.) Tens of millions of low-income families are no longer getting those additional food-stamp benefits. Today, TomDispatch regular and novelist Beverly Gologorsky puts that sad reality in both a personal and a far larger context as she explores why hunger itself isn't considered a kind of pandemic in this country.

Let me just offer one other bit of context for the congressional canceling of those extra SNAP benefits. Late last year, as the pandemic was "ending" and Congress was planning to cut those benefits, it noticed another truly needy place to put our taxpayer dollars. In fact, Congress found that institution so desperately needy that the representatives of the people offered $45 billion more than it even requested for 2023. And yes, I'm thinking about the Pentagon (as well, of course, as the military-industrial-congressional complex it's part of). Its budget is now soaring toward what, in the years to come, will undoubtedly be a trillion dollars annually. In addition, in a time of inflation, members of Congress were so worried about how the giant weapons-making corporations might suffer that, as Pentagon expert Julia Gledhill reports, they "authorized potential sweeping price increases to Pentagon contracts" to deal with any pain such companies experienced "due solely to economic inflation." (And they don't even have to actually prove that they're suffering!)

Keeping in mind just how empathetic Congress can be, consider what it meant to Gologorsky to grow up hungry and what it now means to so many young Americans to do so. (Oh, and by the way, while you're at it pick up a copy of her remarkable new novel about the Vietnam War era, Can You See the Wind?.) Tom

Empty Tables: How It Feels to Be Hungry

My long-dead father used to say, "Every human being deserves to taste a piece of cake." Though at the time his words meant little to me, as I grew older I realized both what they meant, symbolically speaking, and the grim reality they disguised so charmingly. That saying of his arose from a basic reality of our lives then — the eternal scarcity of food in our household, just as in so many other homes in New York City's South Bronx where I grew up. This was during the 1940s and 1950s, but hunger still haunts millions of American households more than three-quarters of a century later.

In our South Bronx apartment, given the lack of food, there was no breakfast. It was simply a missing meal, so my sisters, brother, and I never expected it. Lunch was usually a sandwich and sometimes a can of juice, though none of us used the whole can. We knew enough to just put a little juice in our glass and then fill it with water. Dinner, which one of my sisters called the "real food," would invariably be cheap and starchy servings meant to fill us. There wasn't any cooked fish, salad, or fresh fruit. Rarely was anything left over. Most of our neighbors faced similar food scarcity and many suffered physical problems at relatively young ages: dizziness, fatigue, loss of strength, and other maladies, including asthma and diabetes.

Why Food Should Be a Basic Right

Food is to health as air is to breathing. One thing I learned from the world I grew up in was that if you get little or no food for long periods of time, medical attention is likely to be needed. Children, in particular, must have enough food to thrive, grow, think, and perform then as well as later in life.

Only recently, we saw how a pandemic of unwellness — thanks to Covid-19 — could overwhelm a hospital system, leaving doctors, nurses, and health services in general overworked and in danger of collapse. Think of hunger as another kind of pandemic that, however little noticed, can also overwhelm a healthcare system (or at least that modest part of ours devoted to the neediest among us). Without enough nutritious food, emotional and physical needs only continue to proliferate along with a growing demand for ever more healthcare.

For working poor and uninsured people, however, health services are often difficult to come by or afford. Should you pay for a prescription or an ER visit or much-needed new glasses or buy the necessary food for the next two or three days? In Black and Brown communities, in particular, where racism, poverty, and under-employment continue to be realities of daily life, food deprivation regularly sends people into a cycle of illnesses that only make working more difficult and disability more likely.

Whether the term used is food insecurity or food inequity, the result is simple enough: hunger. And hunger has continued to be an all-American reality decade after decade, in good economies and bad, even though food should be a basic right. It's a problem that, in possibly the world's richest country, no one has been able to solve. Why is that?

Food is certainly plentiful in the United States. And yet enough of it never reaches the tables of those who struggle to make ends meet. Worse yet, by almost any measure, income inequality has only increased in the past 30 years. And as succinctly demonstrated by the all-too-long-ago protesters of the "Occupy Wall Street" movement, high wages have been and continue to be concentrated among the top earners. In fact, as of 2019, three Americans had more wealth than the bottom 50% of American society and things have not gotten better since.

Food Inequity in America

In 1969, the Black Panther Party responded to food scarcity in its communities by introducing a breakfast program for children. One aim was simply to fill their stomachs, the other to help them do well in school, since those who are hungry find it difficult to concentrate.

Having visited their Harlem Breakfast Program in New York City, I was moved then by the sense of joy in the room and the healthy food being offered, which most of the children seemed to be eating with delight. At the time, recognizing the deep-seated need for food and finding a way to meet it seemed like a revolutionary act. Unfortunately, when the political winds changed in the early 1970s, the program ended. Many children of color there once more went to school hungry as so many still do in communities across this country.

Decades later, during the Covid pandemic, the Brotherhood Sister Sol organization began providing food to people in Harlem. Once a week, boxes of it were available to anyone who came to pick them up and many did. Recognizing an emergency, that group acted to try to resolve it, something deeply appreciated by the community. Eventually, however, money and contributions ran out and the effort ended. In Harlem today, there is still hunger.

During the pandemic, at a national level, Congress acted in a significant fashion to increase the Supplemental Nutrition (SNAP) benefits to households already receiving food assistance. Effective March 1, 2023, however, depending on family size and income, the monthly allowance of an extra $95 to $200 in food stamps for tens of millions of households, a majority of which have children, ended. The loss of that extra money and so of nutritional upgrades comes at a time when inflation has sent food prices soaring. As if that weren't bad enough, the federal law passed to provide free school lunches during the pandemic ended last year. (Pre-pandemic free lunches were offered in some schools, but not everywhere.) If the government was able to provide such free meals as well as extra food subsidies in those pandemic years, the question is (or at least should be): Why won't it continue doing just that? After all, wealthy people ate well before and during the worst of the pandemic and will undoubtedly continue to do so.

Available food pantries and food banks gather supplies from farms, shops, and contributions. They then package and deliver them to the needy or provide places where such food can be picked up. Helpful as they are to many, though, they aren't accessible to so many others in need. Even more important, they, too, represent temporary fixes that rise and fall in relation to the political and economic moment. Sadly, people's food needs in this country are anything but temporary and should be assured in the same way social security (so far) is for seniors and those unable to work. That drugs like heroin and fentanyl are sometimes easier to come by in poor communities than nutritious, affordable food should be considered deeply shameful.

For a country that projects itself as the richest in the world, hunger remains hidden by design. It's true that the United States doesn't have the in-your-face version of malnutrition seen in countries like Somalia and Afghanistan (to name just two of the food-desperate lands in this world). Yet according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2020, more than 34 million people in this country, including nine million children, were food insecure, including 1,280,000 adults 65 or older who lived alone.

There Is No Medicaid of Food

Having enough food shouldn't be a matter of charity. Food, like healthcare, should be a basic and necessary human right in a wealthy country like ours, which, of course, lacks a food version of Medicaid. Being able to put enough on the table is treated as anything but a right here. Instead, food is, at best, doled out to the needy in weekly or monthly packages, one at a time, no guarantees for the future and no midnight snacks allowed or the food will be gone before the month is up.

The irony or, better said, the tragedy of our situation is that food insecurity, no less hunger, needn't occur, especially in a country as wealthy as ours. But to change the situation would involve altering far more than the way food is both distributed and priced. A move to greater economic equality would certainly be a starting point, since the ultimate health of a society depends on the health of its populace and a lack of adequate food on a daily basis will continue to affect all aspects of a social order that only continues to fray.

For a while now, progressive mayors and other government officials have been trying to introduce a guaranteed (or basic) annual income into their communities. At present, these are just pilot programs being tested out in various parts of the United States and Canada. They guarantee perhaps $500 to $1,000 dollars a month annually to low-income individuals and/or families. In some areas, this is run as a lottery, in others not. Individuals or families accepted into such a program receive a prepaid Mastercard once a month that allows them to buy food as needed (as well as other essentials) without going to a food bank.

Los Angeles has created one of the country's largest basic-income pilot projects. It provides 12 no-strings-attached monthly payments of $1,000, which, unsurprisingly enough, low-income recipients report to be helpful and genuinely reassuring. However — and there always seems to be a however, doesn't there? — these are just experimental pilot programs and so subject to the political or economic winds of the moment. The word "guaranteed," even when used, should be considered a misnomer until the temporary becomes permanent, making it a guaranteed right like social security.

For those who presently benefit from such programs, there appears to be no downside, except of course the fear that they will end, as the SNAP program just did, returning so many impoverished Americans to their earlier level of need.

In truth, however, food equity for all should be on everyone's political agenda, even if it is a goal that won't be reached without a struggle. This should not be a country filled with empty tables. Unfortunately, short of a loud and continuous hue and cry from the rest of us, hunger will continue apace and only those who experience it will see its effects.

I regularly pass many homeless men and women on the streets of New York City where I live. Recently, I was stopped by a woman who held out her hand and said that she was hungry. I believed her. The homeless are the least hidden example we see of food insecurity.

What is organizing anyway? Who can do it? How is it done?

Beverly Gologorsky, Not in Our Name

Just in case you missed it, former President George W. Bush (“Mission Accomplished“) had a howler the other day. He was talking about Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the Russian autocratic system when, in a speech at his presidential center in Dallas, he denounced “the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq — I mean, of Ukraine… Iraq, too. I’m 75.”

How apt, I thought! Admittedly, as president, he didn’t launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of a neighboring country, but of one thousands of miles away based on an utter lie (that Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction). Mind you, at almost 78 myself, I do understand how the brain can play tricks on you. Still, our George wasn’t wrong in that slip/description of Putin and himself, was he? In fact, he helped remind us, when it comes to invasions and criminal wars, how much the U.S. has in common with Putin’s Russia.

Looking back, however, I felt a deep sadness as I watched Congress rush to appropriate another $40 billion in aid, military and otherwise — $53 billion in total so far — for Ukraine even as it couldn’t agree to pony up a red cent for a pandemic-support package or much of anything else domestically. I couldn’t help remembering that, except for a brief moment before the invasion of Iraq when hundreds of thousands of protestors, including me, took to the streets of this country, that horrific war and occupation went remarkably unprotested here, even if TomDispatch did its damnedest to oppose it.

Today, TomDispatch regular Beverly Gologorsky, author of a remarkable new novel, Can You See the Wind?, about the antiwar movement of the Vietnam era, reminds us just how important such ongoing protests truly are. In the process, she brought me back to my own time in the streets protesting the Vietnam War (as well as working as a young journalist at Pacific News Service, part of the alternative media of that moment). She reminded me of just how focused so many of us were then on stopping our country from killing yet more Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians.

Faced with America’s brutal conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and northern Africa, if only we had truly risen to the challenge as so many are now ready to do when Russia acts similarly, we might be in a different American world. Sadly, we aren’t. But let Gologorsky offer you a little bit of hope for our future. Tom

The Need to Organize: What's the Message and Who's the Messenger?

To begin, an anecdote. This past summer, a pigeon walked through my open balcony door while my attention was elsewhere. I shooed it out, but when I turned around two more pigeons walked out of my bedroom. In the 20 years I’ve lived in my apartment, this had never happened to me, though my balcony door was often open. All I could imagine was that those poor birds had gotten as disoriented as the rest of us in these pandemic years when nothing feels faintly normal.

But what is normal, anyway? Decades filled with war, inequity, poverty, and injustice? Really? Is this what we want — a society clearly failing its people?

There are, of course, many groups working in wonderful ways to improve our lives, each of them a harbinger of what’s possible. These would certainly include Black Lives Matter, reproductive-rights organizations, and climate-change groups, as well as newly empowered union organizing, and that’s just to mention a few obvious examples.

But here’s the truly worrisome thing. These days such social-justice groups, inspirational as they may be, can barely be heard above the clamor of right-wing organizing and conspiratorial thinking, which seems to be gathering strength, leading toward an accretion of power across this land of ours. They’re doing so locally by getting onto school boards and city councils; by using social media to spread ever wilder racist, misogynist ideas; by encouraging racial hatred that results in nightmarish murders, most recently in Buffalo, New York, where a young white man slaughtered African-Americans in a supermarket. And by doing all this and more, the right-wing has grown into a set of movements that continue to flourish nationwide with far too little forceful opposition.

Right-wing politicians, extremist groups, and their social media outlets are anything but new. For years, however, they lingered in the shadows. Donald Trump’s presidency gave them permission to emerge all too vocally and capture the fealty of so many Republican lawmakers and voters. The threats to legal abortion, voting rights, marriage equality, and education (via book banning and curriculum reshaping) are just a few obvious aspects of American life now being menaced by a set of authoritarian, nationalist, racist political movements that are unfolding daily. The question, of course, is: What should the rest of us do to counter all of this?

We live on an ever more climate-endangered planet and in a society threatened by growing amounts of disinformation, misinformation, and a tendency toward extreme individualism. Consider just the growing number of anti-vax, anti-masking Republicans who equate their choices with the personification of freedom, which is really a fear of loss of control — white control, rich control, male control.

Sadly enough, progressive ideas aren’t permeating our society anywhere near as quickly or defiantly as right-wing ones. In the increasingly dangerous world we inhabit, it’s not enough to fire up anger by sending people into the streets for a single day of protest, even to shout No!, Stop!, Not in our name! It’s a shame — since they should matter — but such flare-ups don’t engender real change. Only consistent, visible grassroots organizing, local and national, might lead to the kinds of change that could affect political consciousness and alter a country that may be going the way of Trump far too quickly.

History as Proof

It’s encouraging to look back and note that, throughout our history, grassroots movements have made a genuine difference. Those who worked at change, day in, day out, year in, year out often succeeded in their struggles. They won child-labor laws and social security, promoted women’s suffrage and civil rights, and remade American society in other equally important ways. Sustained grassroots organizing by laborers, miners, teachers, and so many others created national unions, some of which then fought successfully for legislation of all kinds, not to speak of the creation of the Department of Labor itself in 1913 to give that movement a “voice in the cabinet.” Through determined organizing, unionization reached a high point during the 1940s and 1950s.

Unfortunately, by the early 1980s, during the administration of President Ronald Reagan, unions began losing members and clout, a defeat only compounded by their inability to stop a great migration of plants and factories overseas. That phenomenon would, of course, devastate large swaths of the country, especially the industrial Midwest. In its wake, it left blue-collar workers in economic despair and losing confidence in both unions and government. Over time, those feelings would only enhance a rightward political shift.

After so many years, however, a new uptick in unionization seems to be underway. The recent surprise vote in favor of unionizing an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, after two years of organizing efforts, offers a striking example of how a vigorous, progressive, and consistent grassroots movement can achieve change and spur yet more organizing by others.

But what is organizing anyway? Who can do it? How is it done?

Let me try to answer those questions in a personal way. In 1969, in the midst of this country’s war in Vietnam that swept so many of us into the streets, I became a member of a collective that organized an antiwar coffee shop. We opened it close to an Army base and many young soldiers came in. We offered them free coffee and cookies, music popular at the time, and of course ourselves to chat with every day of the week. We even left coins in a jar on the counter that could be used in a pay telephone booth to get in touch with family or friends.

I can remember talking with soldiers, many of them destined for Vietnam. We discussed the state of the country, class, race, and especially, of course, the ongoing war and what to do about it. We listened as well, learning much about those mostly working-class soldiers of all races and creeds: how they grew up, how they felt about basic training, and how they had learned what they knew. We, in turn, began to understand what influenced the thinking of those young men, many from rural areas of the country, including the role of disinformation in their political consciousness. That coffee-shop collective offered soldiers knowledge as power, knowledge to change consciousness.

While antiwar demonstrations spread in those years, often filling the streets, such coffee shops and other antiwar projects spread, too. And of course — though it took far too long and far too many of those young lives — that war did end and we played our small part in that, something I tried to capture in my new novel, Can You See the Wind?.

Movements Then and Now

That was, of course, so long ago, but in the world of today, perhaps such activities might still have a place. What if, for example, organizers were now to begin setting up social-justice cafes — storefronts offering free coffee, music, talk, and educational materials aimed at informing and affecting political consciousness in this ever more social-mediated moment? Such cafés, or whatever their twenty-first-century equivalents might be, would offer an up-close, face-to-face way of countering rightwing disinformation, conspiracy thinking, and propaganda.

Many social-justice groups now do aim to reach out and educate. There’s a problem, however. Their good work isn’t coalescing into the kind of massive effort that can influence deeply. Much of the protest work of this moment, of course, begins (and ends) online — sometimes followed by sporadic flare-ups of street protests, little of it as effective as it should be when it comes to influencing opinion. Though helpful in spreading the word, social-media platforms are inadequate substitutes for street-by-street, action-by-action grassroots work that anyone can join because it’s visible, out there, and noisy rather than one person alone at her computer.

From the early 1960s through the mid-1970s, street mobilizations and public action were remarkably commonplace. Though initially such movements were anything but well covered by mainstream news outlets, a growing alternative media offered them much-needed attention. Soon enough, though, mainstream newspapers and the TV news had little choice but to report on what was so obviously happening in the streets. How could they not, since the insistent demands for social justice were so noisy, ongoing, and hard to miss — and, in the process, people’s opinions began to change.

During those years, the creative actions taken included civil rights bus boycotts, sit-ins of many kinds, and protest marches of all sorts. There were also public teach-ins, women’s consciousness-raising groups, and storefront child-care centers that allowed parents to attend protests and speak-ins in those pre-Roe v. Wade days to demand the right to abortion. Though that right, won then, is now threatened, there will no doubt be a sustained fight to maintain it. A law may be rescinded but it’s difficult to erase from consciousness something that so many women have benefited from.

The messages of such actions were hard to miss and did indeed change public consciousness, as in the case of the civil rights movement. They not only led to desperately needed voting-rights laws, but also inspired generations of young people to become involved in progressive movements.

Unfortunately, these days, those on social media and in the streets are all too often right-wing organizers doing all they can to eviscerate voting-rights laws, aided and abetted by Republican state legislatures and a Supreme Court essentially taken over by right-wingers.

Another example of a protest movement that worked thanks to an organized grassroots struggle is the anti-Vietnam War movement. At the start of that conflict, most Americans were either supportive of or indifferent to it. After the growth of a massive antiwar movement and waves of protest and education to end that nightmarish conflict, much of it taking place in the streets or on university campuses, public opinion did turn against the war and helped force its end.

A more recent example of progressive action would be Occupy Wall Street in 2011 — essentially a tent city set up in New York’s financial district. Though it didn’t bring concrete change to Wall Street, it did change consciousness in this country about the growing inequality between the rich 1% and the rest of us. Perhaps one day an Occupy successor will develop, a grassroots movement in support of taxing the wealthiest Americans to finance so much of what society still needs.

The Black Lives Matter movement is the most recent example of how a consistent mobilization, not just online but out in the streets of cities across the country, can increase awareness of society’s injustice. Through it, systemic racism was brought to the consciousness of Americans in a new way, even as this country was all too sadly being increasingly barraged from the right by white nationalism and the great replacement theory. Sadly, there can be no real social justice as long as the messages of white nationalists proliferate.

What Does Change Mean Now?

In some sense, change is invisible until it succeeds and one thing is guaranteed: it won’t succeed if we wait for it to happen from the top down. History proves that. Though it feels like a nearly impossible task to shake up a nation already thoroughly rattled by Donald Trump and his Republican followers, it can happen. After all, in the end, the real lawmakers are indeed the people.

No doubt the pandemic has created a kind of vacuum in which each of us has been forced to make decisions for her or himself: to take a train, or not; to eat in a restaurant, or not; to meet a friend, or not — decisions that need to be made again and again as the next Covid-19 variant or subvariant hits. No wonder sitting at a computer feels like the least endangering act around, the best way to communicate and relate right now.

We’re born without political consciousness. It’s learned, handed down, exchanged, and absorbed. Think of this essay then as my way of reassuring you that a sense of helplessness has been overcome before and can be again. Each generation learns anew how to cope and bring about change. But history does teach us that sustained grassroots movements have a special impact on political consciousness, even as they influence legislators to meet public demands if they wish to remain in office. In addition, the solidarity of many acting in unison offers a sense of strength and a path out of despair for those involved.

However perilous and unnerving these times may be, they belong to us to either live with or change.

Beverly Gologorsky, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of four novels, including the New York Times notable book The Things We Do to Make It Home and Every Body Has a Story. Her new novel is Can You See the Wind?. She was an editor of two political journals, Viet-Report and Leviathan.

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