Richard Manning

Where the Working Poor Eat

One of the many ironies of our time is that no news is strictly local. Corporate culture's homogenization leaves me free to tell a quirky little story about my town and be fairly certain it is relevant in yours, even if yours is Palencia, Guatemala.

The poor, and therefore the hungry, have always been with us, so it would seem there is no news in this matter. Nonetheless, a group of well-meaning folks assembled itself recently in my town, Missoula, Mont., with the straightforward mission of eradicating hunger here.

One would think it to be an easy enough task. Missoula has a lively economy, affluence, and a deep-seated progressive streak immune to the smear of red that has so stained the rest of the region. So in true progressive tradition, we saw this as simply a matter of rolling up our sleeves and getting on with it.

After all, most of us have seen the hungry, the shuffling homeless under the interstate bridges. There didn't seem to be all that many of them, and they didn't look as if they would eat all that much.

But the people who had been doing the actual work of collecting and distributing food to the poor for years in this town were quick to inform us that stereotypes are simply wrong.

It has become increasingly difficult to work at small-town food banks because often one knows the client not as a beggar from beneath the bridge, but as a neighbor or colleague. Food banks today cater increasingly – and a sociologist's survey of our town bore this out – to people who are employed, the class we now call the working poor. These people earn so little they barely get by. Catastrophic medical bills or Missoula's escalating housing costs can chew up their inadequate paychecks so that by the end of the month there is no money left for food.

If we are to really do anything about the shameful matter of hunger in our town, we must address these larger issues. What at first looked like a little hole to plug now appears to be a bottomless chasm, ever widening.

There is something fundamental buried in all of this: where these people work. Many of them, report the food bank people, work full time for minimum wage and no health insurance at the ring of chain stores that has suburbanized this once unique mountain town. The big-box retail business has exploded in Missoula, making us a regional market center, part of the cause of our prosperity. That is, hunger is increasing in our town not in spite of our healthy economy, but because of it.

Hunger in America is no longer a matter of falling through the cracks, of happenstance and misfortune. Hunger has been institutionalized as a part of the economic fabric, including especially the business of selling food.

There is a mirror image that extends this story to the developing world. The New York Times recently reported, "Across Latin America, supermarket chains partly or wholly owned by global corporate goliaths like Ahold, Wal-Mart and Carrefour have revolutionized food distribution in the short span of a decade and have now begun to transform food growing too."

Simply, small subsistence farmers are unable to sell to the chain stores because they cannot meet the stores' conditions. At the same time the big companies are murdering the local markets that used to sell the farmers' products.

"The stark danger is that increasing numbers of them will go bust and join streams of desperate migrants to America and the urban slums of their own countries," the Times reported.

Look for some of them, coming soon to a food bank near you.

A Conservatism That Once Conserved

The rural, rocky chunk of Michigan that raised me rested on the backside of a hill, my father's share of my great-grandfather's farm. Local lore said this pitiful piece had remained in the family only because the hill hid it from view. That is, my grandfather only kept it because he needed a place where he could farm on Sunday out of sight of the neighbors.

As a boy growing up in the '60s, I also remember being instructed in the operation of our Farmall H tractor, particularly to make straight furrows. I dared to question this requirement, wondering what difference straight made to the oats. I was not-so-gently instructed as to the degree of shame that crooked furrows would bring on the family.

My grandfather may not have been as churched as the neighbors, but he was every bit as conservative, and then some. Beyond conservative, he was obstreperous and tough. Nonetheless, he still cared what the neighbors thought of him. These are not separate matters. Respect for local opinion was what enforced rural America's conservatism a generation ago.

Those of us who live in rural America today face one of two sets of conditions, both radically changed since my grandfather's time. We either live in places that are rapidly depopulating or places that are rapidly populating with sprawl. My bit of rural Montana falls in the latter category. My gulch has suburbanized in about 10 years.

During that time, I've gotten to know a few of my neighbors. Just a few; that's the way the world works now. Many of those encounters arose through heated conversations, all with the same theme. For example, once I politely complained to a man that his rotund and rottenly spoiled child was using his filthy, obnoxious dirt bike to cut furrows up the side of my land, and it was not their crookedness that upset me. The man said, "We moved out here so my boy could ride his dirt bike wherever he wanted."

The odd part is that this man and many of the rest of my neighbors call themselves conservative. I am not assuming; one only need read the stickers and flags covering their SUVs. Yet what is the foundation of this conservatism if it disregards what the neighbors might think, that is, ignores the community standard?

This is not a small matter. A misguided notion of freedom lies at the heart of the suburban cancer on the landscape. My neighbors will tell you they moved because in rural America you are free to do as you please. Where did they get this idea? Rural America, at least when there was a functioning rural America, never advertised any such freedom. Just the opposite.

All of this would be only so much personal vexation if they didn't extend their disregard of community standards to the natural community. Miss the bluegrass lawn you had in New Jersey? No problem. Rip up that stand of Montana short grass prairie. No rain? Pump the aquifer dry to keep it green. Like horses? Go ahead. Fence that pasture big enough to feed 2.5 percent of one horse then put four in and graze it to rocks.

If you are oblivious to the natural community's feedback, you can get away with these things for a while. You'll not notice the elk disappear, the streams dry up, the noxious weeds creep up the dirt-bike trails. You'll not hear these complaints if your relationship with community is fed through a satellite dish.

I can't help but imagine my conservative grandfather would have been terribly appalled by all this. He thought that to let the land suffer was a truly sorrowful thing.

Actually, I don't believe I have to imagine what my grandfather would have thought. A few weeks ago I met a man in his 90s who had cowboyed all his life in Montana. We happened to be driving past a typical suburban horse pasture, four forlorn horses standing in an acre of dust and rocks. I asked him what he thought of his neighbors. He shook his head, but he couldn't speak. He was silent. It was simply unspeakable.

Richard Manning's most recent book, "Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization," will be published in February. Manning lives in Lolo, Mont. He is a member of The Land Institute's Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.

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