While the need for assistance is real, unless we tackle the flaws of those underlying systems we will be facing this same issue year after year. The Greater Lansing Food Bank, of which I am a former director, will be celebrating 30 years of providing assistance to those who need food. All major faith traditions tell us to care for the hungry and the needy, but it seems almost no one who has a pulpit or platform to lead is willing to challenge the systems that continue to add to those numbers.
There is enough food grown to feed everyone, but not everyone has the resources to obtain it. Sometimes a farmer can’t even make a living when market prices don’t provide enough to cover the costs. An economic system built around profit — with rules rigged, winners celebrated and environmental and human costs ignored — will not feed a growing population on a finite planet. That the winners in this tilted game have strengthened their control on the economic system, as well as on the rule making and enforcement of those rules through their dominance of the political system, further threatens our common future.
If there is no profit to be made, the market doesn’t care. Some may believe that markets are divine gospel, but in reality they are human constructs in a game where winning is everything. Continuing to honor this game and its rules while expecting a different outcome is the definition of insanity. The market is a game built solely for the purpose of making money. Winning the game may entail “buying low and selling high,” paying one’s employees low enough wages that they can’t afford to care for their families and knocking out the competition so one can monopolize the markets. The winner-take-all mentality has consumed our food system and our political system and is trying to fully capture the health care system, too.
British science writer Colin Tudge offers a more prudent approach in his book, “Feeding People is Easy.” He calls for an ”enlightened agriculture” that works with nature and the realities of our time, balancing soil health with good livelihoods, appropriate scales, more crop diversity and production that meets local needs first. There are scholars, scientists and farmers who have been trying to get our attention for decades to change the system from one where we think we can dominate nature to one that understands we are part of nature.
One immediate step to address domestic hunger would be to fully fund SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps), to a level that allows everyone to buy enough food. Unfortunately, too many people — or at least those who are the loudest or have the most sway — suggest that government programs such as this should be cut, and that aiding those in need prolongs welfare. They think the charities should do it.
That mindset (or, as I call it, that lack of compassion) leads some to preach that the market can better solve the issue of hunger. Feeding people is less a technical issue than one of ethos and values. If our society truly wanted to feed everyone, it could do it — but not if the economic and political systems in control decide that profit comes first.
Until we change the rules of the game, we’ll continue seeing requests for funding every year in our ”developed” country. This year, we still need to dig into our pockets and help those among us who need a hand. But let’s get over this dream that our situation will be any different next year. We need to push our political leaders to transform the systems that keep so many of our neighbors begging for food.
(Consultant Terry Link was the founding director of MSU’s Office of Campus Sustainability and recently retired as director of the Greater Lansing Food Bank. He can be reached at email@example.com.)
Enclosed in this week’s City Pulse, you’ll find the Greater Lansing Food Bank’s Holiday Envelope Campaign 2012. You can use it to make a check or cash donation today.
The Greater Lansing Food Bank is a nonprofit organization that provides emergency food to individuals and families in Ingham, Eaton and Clinton counties. Food is distributed through a network of food pantries and community kitchens throughout the area.
The Food Bank annually serves tens of thousands of people, including children, seniors and individuals who are employed but don’t earn enough to meet their needs.