“There is no democracy, there is no functioning citizenship, there is no basic humanity while there is hunger.”
On one of his final podcasts on July 14th, Michael Brooks made a plea to end hunger. The following is a transcript of that monologue, edited for readibility.
By Michael Brooks
Let’s talk about ending hunger. I was inspired last week and if you haven’t watched yet please watch the conversation with the great Vijay Prashad where he spoke about the context of defund the police, the racist history of America, the class context and the very simple notion that we use policing, in his terminology, to get in between people and food and the basic necessities of life.
I want to bring back this very simple and core concept. We should have a global campaign in the United States and every corner of the world to completely get rid of every single form of hunger. Let’s do that. Let’s have that very clear and very basic human and universal goal for every single human on this planet. It’s absolutely ridiculous. I could tell you as someone – to be very clear here, we were infinitely more safe and privileged than most – but my family did experience some forms of food insecurity. Even those most mild things, where it was never really going to be an issue – maybe a missed meal here, a missed meal there – the anxiety, the pain of that, the depth of that is something that absolutely no one should experience. Of course many human beings do. In fact the numbers have been increasing. There were an estimated 775 million undernourished people in 2014. By 2018 that estimate increased to 820 million. Hunger is on the rise. The UN estimates that the Covid crisis will lead to an additional 83 to 132 million more undernourished people. UN agencies have also made the argument that the international poverty threshold of $1.90/day is not enough to afford a healthy diet. Millions of people cannot afford a healthy diet according to the UN. This figure is very important, actually. That is the figure that the World Bank and others, with a kind of panglossian view, have deployed to downplay the significance, the resilience and the absolute massive burden of the amount of deeply impoverished and hungry people across this planet.
Of course this problem is not in any way exclusive to the underdeveloped world. Let’s look at the United States, a world leader in inequality and poverty, even as it is the world’s main superpower. The money goes to the weapons and out of the mouths of the poor. 37 million people in the US struggle with hunger. 11 million of those are children. It is estimated that 40.4 million Americans are on SNAP and of course the Trump administration and its republican allies have been waging a vicious – no other word could be used other than evil – war to try to cut food stamps and SNAP benefits from the beginning of the administration. Of course this has not changed during the Covid pandemic depression that the Trump administration facilitated through its grotesque incompetence. There are 6.9 million women and children assisted by the WIC program but even for those with access to these programs, many communities in the United States struggle to stock healthy and affordable food. We know the systems of food deserts and the general undernourishment of all poor populations and many working populations across this country. Last year Donald Trump proposed a cut to SNAP that would cut nearly 700,000 people off the program. Court challenges and the Covis crisis have stopped the proposal from going into effect, but as I said before, the Trump 2021 budget suggests more cuts to the program including cutting the budget of SNAP by over $180 Billion. That’s nearly 30% of the budget over the coming decade.
Now there is also a cash crop disaster. We produce enough food to provide everyone with a healthy diet but our economic system will always prioritize profit over people. Globalization has drastically effected the food market, most consequently through something called cash cropping. African farmers have been encouraged to grow coffee, sugar, cocoa beans, tea and cotton, and to use the money they earn to buy food. This process of drives down systems of resiliency, sustainability and self-sufficiency. This has led to the underproduction of traditional staples and higher prices for those, even during pushes for things like value added taxes in countries like Kenya, which is the most regressive and targeted form of taxation against the poor and working class.
Let’s watch this clip of former Brazilian President Lula da Silva, who of course we greatly admire and advocated for when he was a political prisoner on the show. It’s Lula da Silva speaking at Oxfam on the core need of getting rid of hunger, several years ago.
Lula: “Each state is responsible for the food security of its own people. Either through ensuring the production of food or by providing an income so that each family may purchase its own food. This is the basic condition for peace, democracy and citizenship. There is nothing more important in society than being able to enjoy a breakfast, lunch and dinner. So, this is a fight that concerns all of us. First, each individual government must assume its own responsibilities. Then, the richest countries must support development in the poorest countries. And then, it’s society as a whole, by putting the solidarity that every human being is capable of expressing into practice.”
And that beautiful sentiment right there is it. There is no democracy, there is no functioning citizenship, there is no basic humanity while there is hunger. Let’s look at how Lula achieved this, and he did of course until the coup against Dilma Rousseff and the subsequent reversals. When he was President he took Brazil out of hunger through the Zero Hunger program that was launched in 2003. It was massively successful in its operation which, affected around 40% of Brazilian communities. Childhood growth stunting was cut in half from 1996 to 2007. It was a comprehensive program. It included helping small farmers with modernization, providing credits and subsidies and encouraging them to diversify their crops. It set up programs to enable local organizations like food banks, hospitals, restaurants and schools to support and purchase food from these small farmers at subsidized rates. This is so crucial. It also included investment in roads and infrastructure and supported basic forms of cash transfer, along with access to schooling. Hunger must be understood as a human made problem. Direct aid is needed but also a shift towards a system that changes how and for who we produce food. Lula’s poverty and hunger programs took a wide view, understanding that you can’t address hunger without addressing poverty and how the market fails to prioritize the needs of the poor. This problem is still with us. It’s relentless. It’s relentless in the United States, it’s relentless in the developing world, and of course it increases everywhere, east, west, north, south, with the conditions of global pandemic and economic depression. But this is a choice. This is a choice that can be addressed through humane, compassionate, human centered, global policy. Let’s do it. Let’s demand a zero hunger pledge and a policy in action on all forms of basic poverty in the United States and internationally. And let’s reject all those World Bank metrics that would de-emphasize the full magnitude of the problem even as the actual material conditions stopping us from addressing these problems are very small.
Photo by Ricardo Stuckert