Faculty voice:

Paul Thompson:
Hunger isn't easy to solve

Nov. 24, 2013

Paul B. Thompson holds the W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at MSU. His research has centered on ethical and philosophical questions associated with agriculture and food, and especially concerning the guidance and development of agricultural technoscience.

The Lansing State Journal has a major section devoted to hunger today. A pair of articles come from Joe Wald, executive director of the Greater Lansing Food Bank and Rev. Nicolette Siragusa, pastor at First Congregational Church in Grand Ledge. Wald is encouraging people to make a cash contribution to the food bank, while Rev. Siragusa is writing about the SNAP program. SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. It’s part of the Farm Bill, and Congress is split over how deep the cuts in SNAP need to be. Inside the paper the Editorial Board contributes a piece with the headline “Hunger is a problem we can solve.”

Actually, I think the juxtaposition of these stories illustrates why hunger is not so easy to solve. SNAP is the latest version of programs that date back to the New Deal. During the Great Depression, unemployment rose to over 30% of non-farm labor on a national basis, and there were urban pockets where it was worse. Of course, farmers were a much larger percentage of the United States population in the 1930s—more than 20%. But farmers were not doing all that well either. American farmers were experiencing a collapse in food prices that was partially the result of reduced spending, and partially caused by the fact that European production lost during World War I was finally making a recovery. While the out of work urban population was standing in line for a food handout, farmers were plowing their crops under rather than selling them for less than what they cost to produce. “Breadlines knee deep in wheat,” was the phrase.

The Roosevelt Administration’s response was an exceedingly complex cluster of programs that provided needy farmers with some assurance that they would be able to sell their crops for enough to cover their costs, and funding for a series of programs to provide needy people with the wherewithal to buy their food at the local market, rather than suffering the indignity of standing in line for a handout. People still do stand in line for handouts, mind you, but there’s really no doubt that the food stamp idea—the progenitor of SNAP—makes good sense. Not only does it provide the proverbial “safety net”, it does so in a manner that re-integrates indigent families into the economy. There are both moral benefits (though they shouldn’t be overstated—people still feel a stigma), and economic benefits to the retail food sector. That money circulates through the local economy, multiplying itself several times over.

Perhaps fearful that arguments citing the velocity of money will just make people think that this is too complicated to understand, the Editorial Board at the Lansing State Journal opts for the simple message. In case you missed it, the editorial comes with a large block print box stating “OUR POINT IS…”, and the point today is, “Donate to the Greater Lansing Food Bank.” My proclivity for complicating things to some vague approximation of their actual complexity to the contrary, I would not dispute that. The food bank is a bit like one of those breadlines, to be sure, but from New Deal food stamps through to SNAP there has always been a gap, a group of people whose immediate food needs are acute and who should not be told they will have to wait until the government can process the paperwork to get on an assistance program.

Food assistance programs may have the effect of encouraging employers to pay poverty wages, though. If your workforce is going to qualify for $1.40 per meal for each person in the family, that’s about $20.00 a day that you don’t need to pay them in order for them to show up at work well enough nourished to be a useful worker. It comes to about a hundred bucks a week for a worker supporting a family of four, and some calculate the amount even higher. Does this kind of effect trickle down through our economy? Well, that’s the kind of issue that I would not be stupid enough to address on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

Reprinted from Spartan Ideas. Primary source: Thornapple Community Supported Agriculture.