The Unhappy Marriage of Food and Politics

Published on September 9, 2020.

Food insecurity is particularly visible among immigrants, the same people who work so hard to supply food to our tables. Undocumented immigrants are barred from most government aid, so the CARES Act has done them little good. Last month’s new “public charge” rule, set to go into effect October 15, is even discouraging legal immigrants from seeking aid. The rule allows the government to count the receipt of benefits such as food stamps as a negative factor when immigrants seek green cards.

This means that people who live paycheck-to-paycheck will be the most directly affected if immigration officials in our current administration determine that the poor and sick may need public benefits like Medicaid, housing assistance or food programs like SNAP.

Hunger cannot be a partisan issue.

My father was not lazy. He worked seven days a week as a tenant farmer and picked up other odd jobs. He worked 12 to 16 hour days. I started working in tobacco and in the fields when I was 10 years-old.

Even though we worked all the time, we never had enough to eat, let alone made healthy food choices. Growing up we were malnourished for months on end. We went to bed hungry because after dividing the small pot of food onto the plates of two adults and three growing children, it was just not enough to satisfy our hunger. We would often depend for days on end on pinto beans, which we could grow and store. For a long time after, I couldn’t eat them.

There was a time when my family was working in the tomato fields. My sister, Jane, toddling behind us at age three would pull off tomatoes one after the other and eat the whole thing like an apple. When the owner of the farm saw her, he yelled at us and said no more of “his” tomatoes could be pulled off the vine and eaten. We had to explain in detail to her so she would not pick and eat the tomatoes. After a while, we didn’t see Jane and started looking for her. We found her lying flat on the red clay under a tomato plant, eating the tomato without taking it off the vine like a squirrel.

I wonder if you can remember ever going hungry? Was it for one day (you hated the liver and your parents refused to give you anything else, or withheld food as punishment), or was it a hunger that went on for days on end? It might have been like my family, where all you had for weeks at the end of winter were potatoes. We grew them and buried them underground to last us through the winter. And of course, biscuits and flour gravy were a staple.

It’s been decades since I was last hungry, but I still carry the fear and worry that I grew up with about not having enough to eat. I hate thinking about those days of being hungry. I try to not act from this place of fear, but it’s ingrained into my very being, because food insecurity affects our psyche. It affects our long-term health as adults. It affects how we understand (or not) about helping our children make healthy choices. And food insecurity can rise even while poverty measures do not. Think potatoes or pinto beans.

Food insecurity is about not only a lack of food, but whether a household has the money to buy more food.

We are watching the food lines throughout the country grow, with parking lots full of cars snaking their way around to pick up something – anything – from non-profits like food pantries and churches. Poverty thresholds are measured on annual income, but when your day-to-day income dries up, you still have to eat. When you can’t get a new job, when you have to stay home because you are sick, you still go hungry.

It’s difficult to stay actively engaged in social change if you’re having to choose whether to pay for food, medications, rent or utilities. Hunger is a political problem, but we shouldn’t use it to play politics. We need to work on policies around climate change, education, healthcare, food security, immigration, jobs and wages, housing, peace and many other issues.

There has never been a greater need for strengthening our resilience and ability to work together across difference than today. There has never been a greater need to hold elected officials accountable. Now, when our social and political systems are in a period of instability and unrest, there has never been a better opportunity for systemic transformation.

Hydrangea, 2020, Photo Courtesy Blue Rock Farm Productions

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