Hungry For the Holidays

Terrance Heath

Just in time for the holidays, conservatives are presenting their latest gift to America’s political discourse. Not satisfied with having creating and popularizing climate change denialism, and not even inequality denialism, it looks like conservatives are applying their denialist model to another area: hunger.

With a remark straight out of the conservative “How-come-it-snows-so-much-if-there’s-global-warming?” model, with a twist of “How-come-people-have-air-conditioning-if-there’s-economic-inequality,” Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum took conservative denialism to a new low, when he introduced the newest model: “How-come-we-have-an-obesity-problem-if-there’s-a-hunger-problem-in-America?”

Santorum told the group he would cut the food stamp program, describing it as one of the fastest growing programs in Washington, D.C.

Forty-eight million people are on food stamps in a country with 300-million people, said Santorum.

“If hunger is a problem in America, then why do we have an obesity problem among the people who we say have a hunger program?” Santorum asked.

This could be the big applause-getter at the next GOP debate. And I understand why. As simplistic as the reasoning is, it’s instantly “gettable,” and terrifically funny to the target audience. (Rush Limbaugh already proved that conservatives find hungry children hilarious.) It’s the kind of the right-wing version of a “gotcha,” because a reasoned, fact-based response will almost certainly fall flat. The truth isn’t nearly as simple, or remotely as funny.

That said, Igor Vlosky did a good job of it.

The cost of the food stamp program — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — has jumped because more Americans are out of work and wages are down, not because of obesity rates. Recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that nearly 70 percent households that relied on food stamps last year had no earned income, although many households did benefit from Social Security benefits and other government programs. But a whopping 20 percent of households had no cash income at all last year.

Food prices have also gone up, adding additional costs. In fact, the food stamp program has been critical for reducing poverty and pumping money into local economies during the down economy, so cutting it now would not only take food out of peoples’ mouths (regardless of whether they are obese or not) and could slow down the recovery.

Igor makes the connection between the recession, unemployment, and the growth of the food stamp program. So I want to try and do the same with the connection between poverty and obesity. For starters, obesity isn’t the same for everybody. According to a 2009 study of obesity rates, about two thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. But, wait. Poverty is on the rise, but no way are two-thirds of Americans living in poverty. So what gives?

For some Americans, who aren’t poor, obesity may be a matter of overeating and/or making poor food choices. But the 2009 study also pointed out that seven of the ten states with the highest poverty rates. For Americans who are living in poverty, obesity may be less a matter of making poor food choices than having too few good choices.

Some of these Americans live in areas that the CDC calls “food deserts.” And according to this map fom the Food Desert Locater, there are a lot of them out there.

What are food deserts?

Food deserts are areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.

Do food deserts exist in the U.S?

A review of five high income countries published in the July 2009 issue of Preventing Chronic Disease (PCD) suggests that food deserts do exist in the United States. Estimates of how much of the US population is affected can vary greatly because there is no standard definition of a food desert. According to a 2009 report by the US Department of Agriculture, a small percentage of American consumers are limited in their ability to access affordable nutritious food because they live far from a supermarket or large grocery store and do not have easy access to transportation

Food deserts aren’t the only cause of obesity among the poor. The CDC notes that at least one study suggested that having a access to a grocery store doesn’t automatically mean an decline in obesity, because the role personal preferences (often developed over time spent living in a food desert)play, and the normal difficulty changing old habits and learning new ones. On the other hand, a more recent study showed that moving out of high poverty areas can lower the risk of obesity. So maybe the proximity of more healthy choices does have something to do with it.

Santorum’s use of obesity in support of hunger denialism isn’t much of a departure from the usual conservative “blame the poor” meme. It just another side of it.

One of the most offensive statements on the subject recently came from Rush Limbaugh, who said food stamps provide for people to “buy Twinkies, Milk Duds, potato chips, six-packs of Bud, then head home to watch the NFL on one of two color TVs and turn off their cell phones, and that’s poverty in the U.S.” Aside from getting his facts wrong (alcohol cannot be purchased with food stamps anywhere in this country), he completely misses the point on what being poor is like.

It’s absolutely true that those in poverty eat a less healthy diet than middle- or upper-class people. It’s also true that they are often “food insecure,” a government term that means they don’t always know if they can afford dinner that evening. When someone is hungry — not “it’s 4 p.m. and I’m craving Cheetos,” but truly hungry — he or she is going to eat whatever is cheap and readily accessible. It’s not the poor’s fault that poor neighborhoods have drastic shortages of full grocery stores and sit-down restaurants, leaving them the choice between fast food and the packaged options at the corner store. It’s not their fault that they’d be inclined to get the best bang for their buck, calorie-wise; that Snickers bar is going to stave off hunger for longer than a banana will. And it’s certainly not their fault that low wages mean many of them have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, leaving little time to eat anything more involved than a fast-food hamburger even if they can afford something else.

The New York Times has deemed this disturbing trend the “Bronx Paradox,” named after the borough that has the highest food insecurity levels in the country at nearly 37 percent, and similarly high obesity rates. Federal, state and local governments have taken baby steps toward addressing it — accepting food stamps at farmers’ markets, giving tax incentives for grocery stores that open in underserved neighborhoods — but they’re nowhere near where they need to be. Making sure everyone accepts that this crisis exists would be a very good start.

Food insecurity is still a crisis, as Gary Younge notes. One in five Americans didn’t have enough to eat at some point in the last 12 months. one in seven Americans rely on food stamps to feed themselves and their families. But the conservative response to this crisis is to cut the amount of assistance available, and make what’s let even harder to get.

You would think this would be a national disgrace. The land of the free and the home of the hungry. The sheer scale and intensity of the problem refutes any suggestions of the undeserving poor.

But want has become a term of political abuse, with Newt Gingrich launching his campaign earlier this year by branding Obama “the food stamp president” and continues to berate him as such. Indeed, behind the partisan posturing over deficit reduction, it is rarely noted that rather than impose taxes on millionaires, Republicans are eager to balance the budget on the stomachs of the hungry.

Long term unemployment is wiping out the middle class. Half of those with jobs make near poverty wages. As a result, Americans live in a state of economic insecurity. Millions are caught by the safety net, which keeps them just this side of poverty. Yet the consevative response is to slice away at the safety net of programs standing between millions of Americans and lives of poverty and hunger.

I guess a little denialism goes a long way towards making it easy to push for cuts that will increase the number of Americans living with poverty and hunger, for the sake of protecting tax cuts for the wealthiest 0.2 percent. But Younge points out that hunger may soon become a problem too big to deny.

But there is only so long you can pretend that such a large group of people doesn’t exist, and as the poverty rates grow, more and more people who are likely to vote become ensnared in it. Gallup’s Basic Access Index, which tracks access to basic needs like food, shelter and healthcare or medicines, is at the lowest it’s been since its inception in January 2008. A new measurement of poverty by the Census Bureau, which takes regional cost of living, medical payments and other expenses that do not intrude on the official poverty count, found a third of Americans are either in poverty or desperately close to it.

“These numbers are higher than we anticipated,” Trudi Renwick, the bureau’s head poverty statistician, told the New York Times recently. “There are more people struggling than the official numbers show.”

Poverty may be relative but hunger is absolute. The third world is alive and struggling in the heart of the first. No one can deny it exists. And those who claim they can’t see it, either refuse to see it for what it is or simply do not want to look.

Too many Americans will be hungry for the holidays. Conservative denialism doesn’t make that go away. Budget cuts fueled by that denialism will guarantee that the problem becomes too big for even Rick Santorum to ignore.

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