Much of the current debate about food and agriculture in this country is elitist.
As I've witnessed the denigration of biotech, the trendiness of organics and locavorism, the Islands' flailing efforts to achieve food sustainability and self-sufficiency, I've noticed that an important issue is often overlooked: feeding the poor.
Those who depend on food banks and food stamps (now called SNAP for supplemental nutrition assistance program) do not have the luxury of being picky about what they eat. They're hungry, they're broke and they eat what's given to them, what their limited budget can afford and what's available in stores in their neighborhoods.
A new study makes the disparity clear: Better dietary quality was associated with higher socioeconomic status, and the gap widened with time.
As Roberto A. Ferdman blogs in The Washington Post:
"Price is a major determinant of food choice, and healthful foods generally cost more than unhealthful foods in the United States," the study said. A significant portion of the U.S. population, after all, has enough trouble feeding itself any food, let alone fancy food—some 15 percent of the U.S. population and 17 percent of U.S. households were food "insecure" as of 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which means that they occasionally run out of money for food, or food entirely.
That rate is even higher in the Islands. On Kauai, 20 percent of the population depends on free food distributed by the Hawaii Foodbank – Kauai Branch. Most of them are keiki, kupuna, single moms, the working poor.
According to an article in USA Today:
The widening rich-poor diet gap is disconcerting and "will have important public health implications," said study co-author Dr. Frank Hu of the Harvard School of Public Health. Diet-linked chronic diseases like diabetes have become more common in Americans in general, and especially in the poor, he noted.
"Declining diet quality over time may actually widen the gap between the poor and the rich," Hu said.
This gap is nothing new. As Adam Drewnowski, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington, told Newsweek back in 2010:
“In America, food has become the premier marker of social distinctions, that is to say—social class.”
Though it's easy to say let's get rid of GMOs, eliminate pesticide use and stop industrial ag/monocropping/chem farming or what-have-you, the immediate, widespread adoption of such tactics would have stark results: higher food prices and more hungry people.
Which is not to say we shouldn't be embracing farming methods that are kind to the land and livestock, and we should absolutely support local producers. But agricultural transitions take time, money, land, water and farmers. Meanwhile, the world's population keeps growing, and it wants more food, more meat.
So it comes down to choices, some determined by values, others by economic necessity and still others by personal taste. When I was giving out groceries at the Lihue Court Townhomes food pantry, I was surprised to see most people choose canned fruit over fresh, Spam over tuna, white rice over brown. None of them ever requested GMO-free or organic, and I'm quite certain none of them ever bought any “red shirts.”
They often rejected fresh veggies because they didn't know how to cook them, or preferred the convenience and familiarity of processed food. Others were homeless and had no cooking facilities. Some restricted their cooking to a microwave because they didn't want their kids using the stove, or were trying to keep electric bills down.
It wasn't simply a matter of making healthy foods available. There's an education component involved, too, and it's complicated by the multitude of stressors that poor people face. As the study noted:
"Nutrition knowledge, which is strongly related to education level, is likely to play a role in adoption of healthful dietary habits, and better nutrition may be a lower priority for economically disadvantaged groups, who have many other pressing needs."
It seems that progressives are devoting an inordinate amount of time, energy and money to GMOs, rather than the bigger issues of social justice, economic disparity, feeding the hungry and supporting local agriculture.
For example, rather than waging a doomed campaign for mayor, Dustin Barca could have used that same energy, money and cache with young people to open up taro patches and start community gardens. Rather than waste money on the Babes' girlie calendars, folks could've fed homeless keiki.
Rather than waste countless hours preaching to the choir on KKCR and Facebook, people could've conducted a healthy food drive, operated soup kitchens, or taught nutrition education classes. Rather than fund flawed charter amendments, the uber wealthy and gentleman farmers on this island could have opened some of their land to small farmers, funded agricultural initiatives.
Or as Joni Kamiya-Rose noted on her HawaiiFarmersDaughter blog, rather than spend at least $80,000 on speaking fees for Vandana Shiva, Hawaii SEED could've provided some 200,000 meals for the hungry.
When your belly is full and you've got enough money to shop at the health food stores, it's easy to be didactic and uncompromising about food and farming practices. But that's something of an elitist luxury when a fifth of all Islanders don't have enough to eat.
September is hunger action month. Please give generously to the Hawaii Foodbank, which operates on all islands, including Kauai. And on Kauai, accept no substitutes. Hawaii Foodbank is the real deal, the only food bank actually feeding the hungry. More on that later this week.