By, Jim Hanna
Originally published 2/13/18 in the Portland Press Herald.
I am grateful to hear Gov. LePage express concern for the well-being of people made poor by an economy that is not working for everyone. He demonstrates courage by challenging companies that poison people with unhealthy food products. His vision of better nutrition for Mainers is a goal that the Cumberland County Food Security Council shares.
The governor recently said, “When we could no longer deny that smoking was causing suffering and early death for millions of people, the government finally stood up to Big Tobacco and did the right thing. The time has come to stand up to Big Sugar and ensure our federal dollars are supporting healthy food choices for our neediest people.”
Search photos available for purchase: Photo Store →The Cumberland County Food Security Council believes that government should stand up to companies that prioritize profit over people. We agree that access to food with negative health impacts should be discouraged.
But why limit the access of only poor people? Since all of us are subject to the seductive marketing and addictive nature of food infused with high-fructose corn syrup and sugar, it is right to consider prohibitions on those products for everyone. Households that receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits purchase no more sweetened beverages than any other household does, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Let’s look at how we have reined in tobacco’s influence. Advertising for tobacco products is now illegal. People under 18 are no longer allowed to purchase cigarettes. How soon might we hear, “I’ll need to see your ID before I can sell you that Coke”?
Taxes have been imposed on tobacco products. The money raised pays for message campaigns that portray the true health impacts of tobacco. Those taxes also invest in ways to prevent and address the negative health outcomes resulting from smoking.
In 2013, there were no taxes on soda. Now, over 9 million people in the U.S. live with a soda tax. Collecting a penny an ounce for every pop sold in Maine would generate significant investments for public health. There are already many underfunded programs that create better health outcomes for low-income people. Many do that while paying local farmers and building Maine’s agricultural capacity.
What additional solutions could we come up with if we unleash the imagination of Maine’s food entrepreneurs with significant resources available to sell more healthy local food to everyone? What a boost for our economy and our collective spirit!
In this transition to a locally empowered food system, we will create jobs, make healthy food more affordable and make its production environmentally sustainable. This will create more access to good food and better health outcomes for people who currently run out of money to feed their families, either occasionally or often.
If the governor’s concern for the nutrition of poor people is sincere, then he should reverse the loss of food benefits from intentional restrictions implemented by his administration. In December 2010, the month before he was inaugurated, there were 125,028 active food stamp cases in Maine, serving 243,301 people. By December 2017, the caseload had dropped to 93,602 cases and 178,193 individuals. While some left SNAP because of increased income, tens of thousands of people who are no longer eligible still need assistance putting nutritious food on their tables.
Recent USDA food security research indicates Maine has had among the largest increases in hunger relative to other states. Cutting access to the SNAP benefits that a family needs is not an effective strategy for “supporting healthy food choices for our neediest people.”
When it comes to children, particularly in the context of U.S. economic inequality, poverty has a huge impact. Families that live on much lower incomes than their neighbors will be alienated from the society around them, unable to participate fully in the community. Children growing up in families made poor by a dysfunctional economy will face permanent disadvantages. This is magnified when the family is of color, has a minority culture or religion or does not have English as their primary language. Targeting those households with restrictions on food that everyone else has access to just makes them feel more marginalized and more likely to act like they don’t belong.
True leadership does not use its power to punish people who are already at the mercy of forces they cannot control. True leadership persuades us all to work together to make choices that elevate the common good. I hope Gov. LePage will work with us so that all eaters, not just those with limited food budgets, can benefit from a nutritional environment with more access to food that enhances everyone’s health.
What we call our country’s “emergency” food system consists primarily of food banks, food pantries and soup kitchens. A food pantry hands out packages of food direct to people in need. If an establishment offers hot meals, then they are often called a soup kitchen. Food banks usually provide a warehouse function for pantries, kitchens and other aid agencies like after school programs and senior centers. Maine has one food bank; Good Shepherd Food Bank, which provides food to over 400 organizations.
The idea of the food bank in the U.S. emerged in the late 1960s. A soup kitchen in Phoenix, AZ struggled to manage all of its food donations. A volunteer developed the idea of food banking to manage that inventory for that kitchen and other feeding organizations. During that same time frame, the Black Panther Party was developing its “Survival Programs” intended to support community access to basic resources. They developed initiatives including the “Free Food” program, which accessed and stored food until it was distributed in the community.
Since then, hundreds of food banks have been established in the U.S. Dramatic growth occurred in the 1980s, for example, when the government made significant cuts in the Food Stamp program. Food banks, pantries and kitchens emerge in times of economic hardship when people lose jobs and incomes decrease.
Food banks have become an accepted part of America's response to hunger. Some see the growth and increase in number of food pantries as evidence of active, caring community that is independent of the state. Others are concerned that food banks erode support for welfare programs that are designed to more equitably and efficiently meet the needs of hungry people.
Emergency food aid has become “the new normal” for low-income families in financial crisis. Food pantries have become the default option as poor people are forced to rely on the charity of others when access to adequate income does not allow them to put food on their table. While people who organize pantries often do so with great commitment and sacrifice, they will testify that this emergency food distribution network has not been able to stall the steady increase of poverty. It is neither a sustainable nor a comprehensive solution to meeting the needs of hungry people.
While our Council supports the network of 50 or so pantries in Cumberland County (noting that a few operations open and close each year), we agree that these should be viewed as a temporary solution. Our nation and our communities must organize our economies to achieve the goal of consistent access to nutritious food that is each person’s right.
I have bad news friends.
Our food system is broken.
• In the U.S., chronic diet-related diseases cost $500 billion annually
• Agriculture is the main source of water pollution in America.
• Over the past 10 years, only one U.S. state has seen a greater increase in very low food security than Maine.
These data points only skim the surface.
Our food system isn’t only broken for those who eat.
It’s broken for the sacred souls who grow our food.
It’s broken for workers throughout the food chain
who make and bring us our food
It’s broken for us all
And here, today I am ministering to a congregation - you -
that for the most part, knows this sermon.
Most of you invested a lot of time and traveled great distances through wind and pouring rain to be here out of a desire to heal the food system.
Still, I’ll remind you again. Our food system is broken.
It is my belief and my unrepentant prejudice that the original sin of our food system is hunger.
In this land of plenty,
–if we’re being honest–ours is a land of privilege, flamboyant excess and waste,
that we allow one person, whether they be able-bodied, child or elder
to go without adequate, nutritious food
implicates us all in a vast criminal conspiracy
We can choose different priorities and
organize our communities in ways so that everyone
knows the care and nurturance of wholesome food
but our imagination fails us and a fear of scarcity rules us.
I’ll say it again: Our food system is broken.
“Why does he keep repeating that?”
To remind myself that we are the chosen few.
We have been called.
We are the ones riding the front of the wave that could crash at any moment and toss us into unwelcoming waters,
while the majority of our comrades enjoy their Pringles and Frosted Flakes,
with the assurance that Coca Cola
“is the real thing.”
Without the help of Chef Boyardee and Aunt Jemima we aren’t making nearly enough food for ourselves. It’s hard research to do, but I’ve heard estimates ranging between 8-15% as the quantity we are able to feed ourselves in Maine.
So if that bridge between Portsmouth and Kittery crumbled or got blown up or the price of fossil fuel factored in what it truly costs us to use it
there would be a lot of desperate scrambling
–perhaps much less food waste–
and a whole lot more people intimately familiar with food insecurity
I attended a meeting with a political candidate recently,
and tossed off that assumption we share
“Our food system is broken”
like it is common knowledge.
The conversation tried to move across the table but he turned right back to me and asked,
“How is our food system broken?”
I nearly choked on my Holy Donut,
startled by his sincerity more than anything,
and not even sure where to begin.
That fellow is going to be my mayor in a few weeks
And he is a pretty smart guy.
That tells me we have a huge public awareness campaign to organize.
And I hear the refrain
“But I barely have enough time to tend to my current job description.”
“Our food system is broken” and sometimes I want to cry, not for myself, but for shame about the mess we are leaving our children and grandchildren.
I want to shout, but not condescend, to the people who don’t have the knowledge and information we have.
Because with a little awareness comes great responsibility and for those of you who aren’t covering your ears and going “La la la la”
I’m sorry for forcing you onto this raft that is drifting toward the falls of an inevitable food system transformation.
It’s up to us what happens as the raft disappears into the mist.
I’d feel worse if I was telling you some news you did not know
“Our food system is broken”
and I look out at you, my friends, and feel great strength.
Young and old
Women and men
Middle class… and upper middle class
White and … white
And despite gaping holes in this group’s diversity which will be critical to fix if we are to truly solve hunger
We complement each other.
We can complete each other.
Let’s be careful about complimenting each other too much and invite new eyes and voices to our tables who bring us the blessing of discomfort and the gift of dissent.
I am confident that starting where we live, shoulder to shoulder with our families, friends and neighbors not only can we begin,
we have begun to heal our food system.
There is amazing work happening in our communities, in our state, in our region.
Let me correct that: You are doing amazing work in your community, in our state
that is impacting the region and the Nation.
Today, dearly beloved, we have gathered to push harder and farther than we have been
• in restoring our shared food system,
• in reconnecting to our sources of vitality,
• in making ourselves and our communities whole.
Let us not take this blessed day for granted but embrace its possibilities, leaving it all on the field as that cliché goes,
not a field of sport or battle, however,
but a field where we plant the seeds that will grow
into the best future we can imagine for ourselves and
can be harvested again with joy by those who follow us.
Spoken by Jim Hanna