Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Musings: Food for Thought

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.


Allan Parachini said...

I was just at a Kilauea Neighborhood Association meeting last night whose agenda included another update on the painfully slow process of creating a community agricultural park. I read yesterday on the history page of the Grove Farms website that, during World War II, Grove Farms converted a few thousand acres from sugar to produce production for Hawaii. The huge landowners, ranging from Grove Farm to Gay and Robinson, could today accomplish a great deal by introducing leasing programs that would make it possible for smaller farming operations--15 to 50 acres--to get established. If it could be done in the 1940s, it could be done now, with so much land idle. The county could look for creative solutions to the challenge of incentivizing this.

Anonymous said...

Ur right! EDUCATION! That will solve many problems. It is up to parents, unkos and aunties. Not the government!

Anonymous said...

what about KIFB? are they still trying to put lipstick on a pig?

Joan Conrow said...

Yup! I'll be spilling the beans about KIFB this week.

Anonymous said...

@Allan Parachini - That was during WW2 when submarines and enemy destroyers endangered shipping from the mainland. Times are a bit different now. But if such a dire need arose today, it would be easy to convert farmland to grow enough food for the entire island. But I guess it's easier for you to want someone else to take the economic hit now farming pleasure when there's no foreseeable need to do so and mainland food is far less costly to import than to grow unsubsidized here. Yup, some people have a favorite word: "should". Maybe what you "should" do is to have all your gentleman farm customers actually grow food.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps some historical perspective is helpful here. The conversion in acreage from sugar to other crops was done under Martial Law (Dec 1941- Oct 1944)and when the Military Governor of Hawaii " assumed comprehensive executive, legislative, and judicial powers." You can do a lot with those powers including growing some of the necessary foodstuff for a population that probably sometimes approached the current one. So clearly it can be done- just not under conditions that anyone, especially the "progressive" fistees would find palatable. Reminds me of the Mel Brooks line "it's good to be the King" It's better to be the Military Governor with access to firing squads when civilian courts have reduced to the equivalent of teen drug courts. This was a man who controlled labor, prices, wages, rationing, schools, hospitals, employment, curfew etc. A simple writ and you were farming potatoes in Kunia or onions in Brodie.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Joan.
A great article.
Slowly diet awareness is creeping in to the schools and mainstream. But as Wallmart goes, so does the nation. And Wallmart is bringing in products that reflect their customer's desires. More organics and fresh produce. Wallmart is the beacon of the average consumer.
Alan P- There is a lot of lease land for farming available. But, why would the Big Land owners want to play ball with the County of Kauai that is intent on taking their farming rights, passing laws against them and having a tax vendetta to reduce their power. There are many people flapping their jaws, Gary Hooser, Joan Yukimura and Tim Bynum among them, that we gots to gets back to the land. Total BS, there are not enough workers or farming entrepreneurs to have the envisioned farms. The hard fact is that the cost of a startup, IE insurance, water and other lease guarantees make it difficult.

The vast majority of Kauai's people came out of plantation life. Most parents did not want the 12 hour days in the sun as a vocation for their kids....
Kauai farming is fine the way it is. A bunch of cute little boutique farms, with land values that far exceed any farm output value.
Gee whiz- some ideal land is right in Kapaa, hunnerds of acres ready to go, with millions of gallons of water per day, flat,sun and easy transport for market. It is owned by one of the bigger organic, pro-gmo land owners on Kauai....Miss Bette Midler her ownself, but the reality of taxes and a good lessee puts cows on the land. Historically, the old cowboys are good tenants. They pay their bill, take care of the land and do not have jillion hippie "farm workers" camping on the land.
Give to the Food Banks.....but if you want Kauai to go bankrupt, target farmers and continue to divide the people vote for Bynum, Hooser, Chock and Yukimura...Jay is excused, his anti-farm vote and his putting Gary's assistant, Mason , on the Council is very Weird. He may have gotten a "contact high" from all of the antis in the room and forgotten about Kauai's people.

Anonymous said...

9:46 Correction
Bette Mitler is one of the BIGGEST ANTI-GMOs, not Pro....sorry
Hypocrites abound on this to make a change, but nope, I can talk it, but not walk it.

Anonymous said...

Yes 9:46! If Bette Midler is such a good person and concerned about Kauai, why isn't she using her 1,400 acres of (banked) land to deliver food sustainability to the people of Kauai? I think it's because the anti-GMO crowd to which she belongs are as duplicitous and self-centered as they accuse others of being, and when it comes time for them to give real support according to their ability, they want someone else to do it. Typical false face.

Anonymous said...

Why do 20 percent Ned the food banks ? Simple answer....too many children . Sounds like a personal problem to me.

Anonymous said...

1:18 PM: It's easy and convenient to blame the disadvantaged. That way you never need do anything. Better hope, though, that you don't someday end up disadvantaged yourself, with others placing blame on you.

What would you say of the fragile elderly and disabled members of our community who would go hungry if not for the food banks? Do they have too many kids too? Some have no kids at all. If, instead, they'd had kids a few decades ago, who would have grown up and could help support them now, then maybe they wouldn't be looking to the food bank for help.

And for the keiki who are hungry, whether you think they should have been born or not, their hunger is no fault of their own. If the community chooses to invest in their health and their ability to learn, then that opens the possibility of a brighter future for the next generation. It's hard to see how anyone could be opposed to that.

Dawson said...

"Why do 20 percent Ned the food banks ? Simple answer....too many children . Sounds like a personal problem to me."

"Those non-white people and their inability to control their reproductive urges" is one of the cornerstones of colonialism, itself built upon a foundation of racism, paranoia and fear.

Like flies to meat, it is a world view that infests every discussion of hunger and poverty with the maggots of its inhumanity.

Anonymous said...

For a few years now, Lihue United Church has operated a large organic community garden to provide fresh produce for the loaves and fishes food pantry at St. Michaels. They always need volunteers.
Or perhaps one could put energy into organizing an information campaign about the many such efforts that go largely unknown and unpublicized. I helped start the aforementioned effort; but, never heard of the food pantry Joan reported volunteering at.
There are so many ways to make a worthwhile effort other than "bring them to their knees" activism doomed from the start!
Pete Antonson

Anonymous said...

That's interesting, 5:52. Is there a list somewhere of food banks and independent operations that distribute food to needy people? I know I can drop off cans to the bank at certain times of the year, but I bet many people would love to know the locations and times at which they could volunteer. I bet many people would be interested in learning about small scale farming from these places, as an added benefit for volunteering (since it seems volunteerism is no longer it's own reward). I also have a hard time with transplant hippie kids moving here and living their "romantic" dream on the beach and collecting our tax-run social services. While it is not right to sit and verify a family's actual neediness when collecting volunteered handouts, it still smarts when people abuse systems.

Joan Conrow said...

Dear Anon 7:39 am
You can contact Michelle at the Hawaii Foodbank -- Kauai Branch for a list of agencies and the food pantries they run throughout the island. 482-2224

The food bank also happily accepts donations of food any time of the year. They are located at 4241-A Hanahao Place, near Mark's Place in the Puhi Industrial Center.

Mahalo for your interest!