More than charity is needed to fix hunger

During our second year of marriage in 1997, my wife and I were often hungry. We lived in a one-room apartment in the back of a garage in the middle of nowhere. We had no money. Our car was reposessed in the winter. Just before that, I lost a job doing in-home teaching because we didn’t have gas money. I was working about 25 hours a week at the local Dunkin’ Donuts, and we were relying on our local food shelf to provide us with the bulk of our meals. Any money we did have went towards what bills we could pay, but more often towards some quick-fix happiness like fast food or books or music: anything to distract us from our seemingly interminable reality. We didn’t know any drug dealers, or we might have spent money on that.

We survived that 18 months or so without ever becoming truly homeless, though I think we still owe some rent. We were lost and confused. Cold even in the summer. Abandoned by the world. Angry, depressed, and scared. We did live clean, and we did work hard, but all of that would have been for nought if we hadn’t been lucky enough to live in Vermont, and have family close by who could provide shelter and food when we needed it.

We did not have a Thanksgiving meal that year. I think we ate bearclaws or something from Dunkin’. But the thing is, we were also unable to have supper the night before or the night after. We ate what was available at the food shelf or the day-old pastries I brought home from work. The only reason we remember our absense of food on that particular Thursday in that particular November was because it was a holiday. In truth, it was no different for us than any other day that week. Had we been the recipients of a food basket or something on that day, it would have made us happy, but it would not have solved our problem. Charity is not enough to solve the problem of hunger.

During the holidays, we all become especially sensitive to the needs of others. We focus more deeply — if for an infintesimally brief amount of time — on the homeless, the marginalized, the hungry, the poor. We give money at our local grocery stores or buy the gift bags in $10 increments. Celebrities drive truckloads of food to their old stomping grounds. Some of us might volunteer at homeless shelters, food shelves, or work with the local Kiwanis putting together food baskets. Whatever the activity, we do it because it feels good, because it provides a moment of happiness in somebody’s life, and we do it because it’s the right thing to do. We do it because it becomes more clear during our own moments of abundance that there are far too many people who go without.

According to Feeding America, in 2014 48.1 million people in the United States lived in food insecure households. That number includes 15.3 million children. If you’re keeping track of the math, that means that 14% of Americans can’t guarantee that they or their family can eat today, and a third of those affected are children. Shockingly, this number is higher than it was a decade ago, according to the USDA.

Also according to the USDA, 31% of post-harvest food went uneaten in 2010. And just two years ago, the United States ranked second worst regarding child poverty in a survey of 35 of developed nations. Meanwhile, the international statistics for hunger and poverty are increasing. Food development and nutrition are improving on a global scale. In spite of this good news, however, there are many countries where hunger is getting worse, and the United States seems to be one of them.

Clearly, there is a problem with hunger in the United States. Even if you don’t want to look at the numbers, logic should make it clear: charity continues to be needed in spite of it having been tackling hunger for decades. The truth is that charity continues to be needed because hunger is not something we can solve by giving people food. Hunger is a systemic, symptomatic issue of a more deeply entrenched problem. People don’t need to be given food. People need to be given the means to access food. The same methods that are used in developing nations that allow people to conquer hunger should also be used here. We don’t do it, though, because we are blind to the problem, and we believe that hard work and persistence can solve any problem.

This is not about self-sufficiency or lack of a work ethic. I think we’ve reached the point in history where we can begin to say that hard work does not guarantee success. Someone working two minimum wage jobs for a total of 50 hours a week does not lack a work ethic. Let’s be honest, here. In our current system, success is only possible for those born into a position where it can be achieved. My wife and I are examples of this. In reality, luck, geography, and salary play far larger roles in our success than hard work does, and the same goes for access to food.

The cost, availability, and quality of food is based entirely on where one lives in the United States. In Mississippi, the food insecurity rate is 22%. Two-tenths of the population of Mississippi isn’t sure where their next meal is going to come from. Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Texas, Ohio, Alabama, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Maine, Oregon, and Kansas round out the list of the 14 states that are more food insecure than the national average. Additionally, there is absolutely no county in the U.S. where the minimum wage is the same or greater than a required living wage. Just last month, the average cost of food for a family of four was approximately $1,070.00 (USDA). That’s about two weeks worth of work for someone being paid an average of $9 – $10 an hour. Once you start factoring in housing, transportation, health insurance, clothing, utilities, and entertainment, the struggle becomes clear: food is expensive.

Access to food for most people in the United States is dependent on being able to afford it. We have long since stopped being an agrarian society, and most Americans depend on some means of distribution for their food, and that’s where the problem is. If there is so much food that 31% of it is being thrown out, but there are still people in the country who are hungry, then there are at least two ways of fixing the problem. First, minimum wage must be fixed to a rising cost of living. If a family of four needs $22 an hour to live, then that family has to earn $22 an hour. As the cost of living increases, the wages should increase. If the cost of living goes down, wages should stay static. Second, we need broader access to food beyond what top-down economics or charity can provide. I believe we have to focus on this in order to create long-term, sustainable solutions to hunger.

We must begin looking at ways of ensuring people will always have food. We should support and nurture neighborhood gardens and co-ops. We should allow people to grow food and have a few animals in the suburbs. Some communities have enacted local currencies and barter systems. We need to de-industrialize farming and be more diverse with the crops we grow. We need to spend money on infrastructure and moving towards more sustainable transportation methods, the costs of food distribution will go down. We need to bring food selling back to the centers of communities and away from the big box stores. We need to get violence out of our communities. And while we do this, we need to continue to be charitable.

Food is not a commodity. It is a necessity. Perhaps the most necessary one. If we can work with other countries to help devise systems of food growth and management, then surely we can do the same here. Access to food should no longer be dependent on whether someone was lucky enough to be born in a particular location at a certain time. Access to food should be an implicit right of being born, period.

What I’m saying is that during this holiday season — this one right now — let’s stop thinking about just giving $1, $5, or $10 at the grocery store and start thinking about what we can change to ensure that those donations are no longer necessary. Again, this is not about people lifting themselves up by their bootstraps, or self-sufficiency, or spending more on social safety nets. This is about changing the very nature of a system that causes the problem so that bootstraps and safety nets become obsolete and nobody will need to live hungry again.

Thinking my way through a carbon tax

A few months ago, I posted here about sustainability. That is, the economic and environmental idea that one should attempt to maintain a level of living without relying on growth metrics. Sustainability is a key metric in understanding whether a socio-economic or environmental decision is likely to lead society to ruin, or give it a chance to breathe a little longer. Humans are in a position where we need to begin taking very seriously the signals we are receiving from nature and act accordingly. I think that the recent drive by Energy Independent Vermont towards a statewide carbon tax is a result of them taking the signals seriously. That’s the right thing for them to do, and I agree with their intent. The question I’m left with is whether it’s the right place to start.

What I’m concerned about is whether the carbon tax system being worked out in the state is the right way to go about moving Vermont towards a more sustainable relationship with fuel and energy. Certainly, I believe that something has to be done. According to Limits to Growth, published in 2004, economically viable oil and natural gas reserves will be mostly depleted by the middle of this century. Even if you happen to be a climate change denier (which you really shouldn’t be), reserves of fossil fuels are what they are. Somewhere between 35 and 50 years from now, we could be looking at a situation where there is a real shortage of oil as opposed to one driven by economic politics. When that happens, we are going to need to be ready to transition to some kind of alternative.

To me, there are two categories of energy needs we will need to account for. The first is for buildings. The second is for travel. For buildings, we need to supply the means to heat and cool them, which is fairly straightforward. It also happens to be where most of our energy goes: generally speaking, buildings use more energy than vehicles because of the constant regulation of temperature. For vehicles, we need to find a way to make them run without incurring an insurmountable expense to their operators and without relying on fossil fuels. I want to look at buildings first, because it’s the most straightforward.

There are industrial, commercial, and residential buildings. Each are perhaps constructed differently, but all need to be able to regulate the environment within them to make sure the people who are inside are safe and happy. This requires energy. For these buildings, there need to be efforts to make them energy efficient and eliminate fossil fuels from their heating and cooling methods. There are currently incentives in place for the energy efficiency, but with a two-year waitlist for homes, more needs to be done. As far as the elimination of fossil fuels, the only two reliable alternatives at this point (for Vermont) are electric heating/cooling systems or wood-based heat (either pellets or cord wood). From a carbon perspective, electrical systems powered by renewably-generated electricity would be the best: no carbon released into the air at the building, and fossil fuels are not required for the generation or maintenance of electricity. Pellets and cord wood are probably going to be more common in homes until weatherization can be completed. So for buildings, we have a path of migration away from fossil fuels and towards relatively sustainable alternatives. Vehicles are a little more difficult.

In order to make the shift away from something, there has to be something available to shift towards. In the case of vehicles, the only currently practical option for commuters in rural communities would be electric vehicles: either personal or mass transportation. Electric vehicles are getting better, but their range leaves much to be desired. If the only affordable model gets around 80 miles per charge, then rural communities need to look at methods by which the charge can be maintained. The range of electric vehicles will improve over time, but it may not be until we are already out of fossil fuels. Right now, however, shifting to an electric vehicle might be sustainable from an environmental perspective, but not from a personal economic one. The good ones are expensive, though the relative price — related to gasoline-powered vehicles — is going down. Still, in the near term, the entrance cost of an electric vehicle is larger than the perceived benefits of shifting away from fossil fuels, and my in fact be prohibitive to certain demographics.

Remember, the goal is to not only find away to migrate away from fossil fuels, but to do so in a proactive way that is socio-economically sustainable as well as environmentally sound. Certainly, a statewide tax on the consumption of fossil fuels will create a market-based incentive to shift away from them, but only in the structure segment is there something viable to shift towards. In terms of travel and farming and logging and landscaping, the carbon tax simply increases the cost of doing business and makes things more difficult for homeowners, commuters, and those who rely on fossil fuels for work. Yes, there is a money back component, but there is such a delay between the carbon tax cost and the refund that it doesn’t help in the day-to-day, and if a balance isn’t found it could lead to the collapse of a home, a farm, or even a rural community. Granted, that is likely to happen when fossil fuels are depleted anyhow.

While this is all just a thought exercise, I believe that there is a gap between the carbon tax and the shift away from fossil fuels that needs to be looked at. Market-based economic incentives work because there are alternatives already on the market place. In the case of fossil fuels, the alternatives are not mature enough to be equivalent and are likely to cause near-term sustainability problems as consumers work to incorporate higher cost travel and maintenance figures into their living budgets. Additionally, people who have chosen to live remotely in more rural areas may be beyond the range of the available vehicles.

Possible remedies to this include the following:

  1. Ensure people have access to public transportation options that fit their employment needs and are cost-effective: provide funding for mass transit (rail, bus) on regular schedules to and from major employment centers
  2. Ensure the costs of more carbon-friendly vehicles/transport options are not prohibitive: tax breaks, refunds, deductions for purchasing vehicles; statutory pricing models; subsidized trade-in deals;
  3. Provide additional kick-backs or wage increases (above just income-based) to people whose employment relies on fuel and who have no other option (loggers, truck drivers, rural commuters, etc)
  4. Invest in infrastructure (fiber optic, roads, bridges) and economic incentives to ensure that there are jobs were people live; companies who allow people to work from home get more back from the carbon tax, perhaps; free Internet access for all VT citizens; remote office centers for larger employers (the state, insurance companies, etc)

Whatever we end up doing, we have to find a way to transition from fossil fuels to other energy sources for our buildings and our travel needs. It’s just a necessity at this point and there’s no arguing it. The method we choose to attempt that transition is what will make this successful or not, what will allow us to be ahead of the fossil depletion or fall victim to it. What we choose for a method should be able to meet our needs for the next decade, but also still be viable through the next 30 years.