Hunger and Wages: Rethinking the Conversation
Mark Winne writes, speaks, and consults extensively on community food system topics, including hunger and food insecurity, local and regional agriculture, community food assessment, and food policy. He is the author of Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty (Beacon Press 2008) and Food Rebels, Guerilla Gardeners, and Smart Cookin’ Mamas: Fighting Back in an Age of Industrial Agriculture (Beacon Press 2010). Mark is a co-founder of a number of food and agriculture policy groups including the City of Hartford Food Policy Commission, the Connecticut Food Policy Council, End Hunger Connecticut!, and the Community Food Security Coalition.
What can we do to get people to pay attention to the problem of hunger?
Stop talking about it; broaden the conversation. When we talk about hunger what we focus on is the usual menu of anti-hunger solutions, like food banks and food stamps. When we talk about poverty—the cause of hunger—we end up working toward real solutions to hunger.
What does that mean for public food subsidies?
The ideal would be to rethink all federal food programs, which cost well in excess of $100 billion annually, and reshape them to reduce poverty and promote healthy eating—free of all political ideology and special interest advocacy. Our innovations have been so small; we need to give states some latitude to take a portion of their SNAP grant to try other solutions, like job creation, microenterprise, or even cash benefits. Let’s see what happens when we prohibit the purchase of sugary soft drinks with SNAP benefits.
What about innovation at the grassroots level, like at food banks and other community based anti-hunger groups?
Food banks generally don’t take aggressive or controversial positions in the public policy arena because they don’t want to disturb their donors, or undermine the respect and credibility they possess. Most people think the minimum wage should be higher, but only a small number of people support movements to actually make it happen.
Why is it hard to get people to support those efforts?
We have a hard time making meaningful change until we are affected by it in a visceral way. Hunger, particularly childhood hunger, evokes strong feelings of empathy and even revulsion. Trying to get a wage of $15 an hour for fast food workers doesn’t push those same emotional buttons, and even evokes some lingering antipathy toward labor movements.
We’ve done a ton of data crunching to show how ridiculous our current minimum wage is—but we don’t seem to be able to translate that into a message that will turn the tide of public opinion. So what can we do to create real change and improve lives? We can influence the anti-hunger movement. We can make everyone who works with hunger issues and food programs aware of the reality of income inequality—and how outrageous it is. We need a uniform message, and we have to stop making claims that we are going to end hunger by simply feeding people… unless we’re also going to attack the underlying causes of hunger. We have to promote the reality that our level of income inequality and our low-wage economy are threats to our national security. Plutarch once said that “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.” If we raised the minimum wage to $10.10, it would lift six million people out of poverty and result in a $4.6 billion reduction in SNAP spending. 52% of fast food workers receive some form of public assistance—that’s $7 billion in taxpayer money to subsidize big corporations that pay unlivable wages.