|Food bank line: 2010|
|The Great Depression: back to the future|
Thad Wasson's comment in a previous post is illustrative of the great political divide in America and the mode of perceptions that sustain and widen it. The New York Times made a comparative chart of America's position on social issues relative to other developed countries in the world. One of the indexes is "food security," which is bureaucratic terminology for hunger. The U.S. ranks at the bottom on this issue. Thad apparently sees an irony between what Michelle Obama promotes and what the chart represents: Michelle Obama said we are an obese country. Now we are one with food insecurity?
Obesity is, of course, not an issue original with Michelle Obama. She has chosen to focus attention on it because it has been cited by the National Health Institute and the American Heart Association as a major health issue in the U.S. The real irony is that a large percentage of Americans display overindulgence and poor dietary choices while 15 percent face hunger problems. The USDA reports that 14.7 percent were food insecure at least some time during the year, including 5.7 percent with very low food security. The fact that some people can loll about in fat while others struggle not to starve is one of the indications of a social issue with the haves and the have-nots that is propelling America into a time of revolt along with the many nations in the Middle East.
Food prices are at a record high, and are a factor in the riots and protests taking place throughout the world. Bad weather and consequent crop failures are factors in the rising price food. But in the U.S., another factor enters the picture with increasing significance: the concentration of food production and distribution in a few huge corporations.
Ever since World War II, observers and analysts of agriculture have been warning of the dangers of integration in agriculture. They have warned of vertical integration, which is when farms are directly absorbed into the corporate structure, owned by corporations, and controlled from corporate headquarters. And they have warned of horizontal integration, when farms become part of the corporate matrix through contracts and treaties. That latter design is the one that American agriculture has followed.
Farms have increased in size so that there are fewer farm owners and operators, and the number of farms continues to decline. While the remaining farms may list private individuals as owners, the current owners are locked into production contracts with corporations. The old open market system when farmers brought their production to market where buyers bid on it died. Now farms are effectively merely production departments for the corporate monopolies. To stay in business, farms have to be integrated into the corporate scheme of business.
This arrangement changes the controlling force of supply and demand. In times of surpluses, farmers took losses in the open market because the prices they could get for their production did not cover the cost of production. In times of shortages, farmers reaped big profits. The boom or bust open market made agriculture a risky, unreliable enterprise. During World War II, when the world could absorb everything farmers could produce, agriculture thrived. After the war, when farms produced surpluses, agriculture produced more than the market wanted to buy, and so the government intervened with farm programs that purchased the surplus production and stabilized the agricultural economy. The programs also set production quotas as a means of keeping production within the bounds of what the market could absorb.
The integration of farms into the corporate structure have changed the way the market works. While weather and crop failures play a role in the supply-and-demand force on the market, so do corporate actions. When demand does not meet what is supplied, the corporate processors can adjust the supply to drive up costs. As with the petroleum fuel business, corporations can manipulate the market to maintain their bottom lines.
With world food prices at record highs, global corporations will take advantage of the increased demand to pad their bottom lines. The fact that there are large segments of the population that face hunger and malnutrition is not something the corporate world wants to address, unless there is a profit in it. In the U.S., corporations, not individual farmers, are the major recipients of the federal farm program subsidies.
In the past, the federal government bought crop surpluses and distributed them to the poor. Today, the federal government issues food stamps, which benefit corporate agriculture as much as the food stamp recipients. But the food stamp system is why the U.S. has such a high percentage of people who face "food insecurity," in other words, hunger. It helps, but it does not address the size of the gap between the haves and the have nots, which is the real root of the problem. The U.S. has a rate of people who face food insecurity of 15 percent. Canada's is half that. The U.S. has a large population of working poor whose meager wages are not enough to afford enough good quality food.
During my lifetime, I have been involved in much food distribution to the needy. As a very young child, my mother took me along when she delivered food from our church to the needy one afternoon a week. As an adult who worked as a farm editor, I was involved in food distribution in many levels. A congressman asked me and other farm editors in his district to analyze and advise on agricultural policy, particularly as it addressed hunger in the U.S. At the time, a big story was the number of elderly people on pensions who subsisted on cat food. And as a member of the Lutheran church, I was involved in the actual distribution and delivery of food, which involved everything from driving a delivery truck to working in the church kitchen as the church operated as a congregate meals site. While I worked through the auspices of the church, there were many organizations involved: protestant, Catholic, Jewish relief organizations and community organizing agencies that participated in the programs. Churches and synagogues were involved because they consider feeding the hungry a primary obligation.
Food has been a weapon used against selected groups to keep them under control. The U.S. has a shameful history in the way it has used food to subjugate people. In slavery times, owners tried to keep their slaves on a diet that kept them weakened and made them docile and obedient for the promise of food. The problem was that slaves developed their own food culture through which they could supplement their diets with dishes of raccoon and opposum and anything they could filch out of massa's kitchen. The subjugation of the American Indians and and the opening of the West to settlers was achieved by killing off their food supply, the bison, and then herding the Indians onto reservations on the most unproductive land where food was used to manipulate them into submission and keep them in a state of dependency. Hunger and deprivation as a means of subjugation have been as American as apple pie and baseball. The reservation system is a living monument to the use of hunger to deny and oppress.
America has been exceptional because the people who see the genocidal injustices in American history for what they are and have worked to acknowledge and change the course of history to one which acknowledges the principles of freedom, equality, and equal justice in deed as well as words have prevailed. Feeding the hungry is an imperative shared by Christian and native cultures and most of the humanely civilized cultures of the world. In America, the use of hunger to designate a lower class which is held in a state of contempt and deprivation is a part of the history of a faction that detests freedom for all, equality, and equal justice. In our time, that faction supports the right of corporations to obtain wealth and advantage without restraint, but at the same time labels benefits won by unions for their workers at the negotiating tables as the products of greed and unfairness. America is experiencing a resurgence of fascism and the claim of the benefits of the country only for those who identify with the ruling class.
Nothing is more offensive to the fascist mentality than a working class that has a voice in determining its own status and destiny. The fascist agenda which is playing out in America is more for the greedy and less for the needy. That 15 percent in the world's wealthiest nation who deal with "food insecurity" is an indicator of the direction the country has chosen to take. The wealthiest 20 percent in America holds 85 percent of its assets and 94 percent of its wealth. If they are to keep the nation under their control, they will have to increase the rate of those facing hunger to far more than 15 percent and do it fast before the people take to the streets and stage massive protests calling for the overthrow of the ruling class. Food dependency is a means of control. And that is the agenda playing out throughout the nation. The people who do the actual work of the country have that silly notion that they deserve some equity in its opportunities. The political divide is simple. The fascists do not think that food security or health care is good for the working class--if it is to be held under control.