“We are represented by a Republican and a Democrat, and both of them need a call this week about this vote,” said MSNBC host and Tulane professor Melissa Harris-Perry.
Last week, Republicans in Congress narrowly passed a bill cutting $40 billion from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program over the next 10 years, leaving its cost at more than $700 billion over the next decade while removing nearly 4 million people from the program next year, according to the New York Times. Republicans argue that the program has grown too large and added measures limiting the time people can stay in the program and requiring drug testing for recipients. Supporters of the program say it has kept 4 million people out of poverty and that continued improvements in the economy would end their dependence on the program naturally.
On Tuesday night, Second Harvest Food Bank presented a free screening of the documentary “A Place at the Table” to a packed house at the Prytania Theatre. The film paints a complex picture of the interplay between poverty, nutrition and federal policy. The federal government doles out major agricultural subsidies to corporations that produce the staples that go into unhealthy processed foods, driving down their cost while that of fresh vegetables continues to rise, the film asserts. Meanwhile, poor neighborhoods in inner cities and or rural areas cannot get fresh food stocked in their stores, limiting their customers choices to those mass-produced snacks.
Although an estimated half of all American children will receive federal food assistance at some point in their childhoods, the average benefit works out to only about $3 per day, forcing parents to buy cheaper, less nutritious food, the film says. Likewise, school lunches are made with less than a dollar’s worth of food, despite widespread medical evidence that malnutrition permanently harms children’s mental development, attention, behavior, and performance in schools. Finally, as federal assistance has shrunk since the 1980s, charities (like Second Harvest) have had to fill the void, but their ability to serve is uncertain and uneven as they are dependent on the ups and downs of voluntary donations.
After the film, three panelists weighed in: Harris-Perry, New Orleans health commissioner Karen DeSalvo and Sterling Farms co-founder Troy Henry. Harris-Perry said that the political shift that has allowed an estimated 50 million Americans to go hungry at some point in the last year is not about Republicans wanting children to starve. Rather, Harris-Perry said, discussion of nutrition has somehow been decoupled from the discussion of poverty, so that it is now politically acceptable to argue that people who cannot afford to feed their children shouldn’t have had them in the first place.
There is one social program that has worked well, Harris-Perry said — Social Security, because it is a guarantee of security for all Americans based on age. Food-stamps could also work as well as they did in the 1970s, she said, if there was the proper funding for the program.
“We can solve this,” Harris-Perry said. “It is about will.”
DeSalvo said that, as the daughter of a single mom, she benefited from food programs when she was a child, and school lunches were a major source of nutrition for her. But her mother also supplemented her diet with vegetables from a garden at the house, and that’s starting to come back in New Orleans, which could help, DeSalvo said.
But the most important factor in most people’s health is not their healthcare, but their lifestyle, Desalvo said. Where they live, their access to nutrition and other environmental factors actually work together to keep people hungry, underachieving and poor.
“Poverty is at the root of many of the challenges,” DeSalvo said. “I just want to make the link again that when we think about health in this country, health is about getting people to a doctor. It’s actually not. It’s a part of it. It’s 10 percent, or maybe 20.”
DeSalvo and Henry lauded the city’s initiative to create loans for groceries in the city’s food deserts, neighborhoods with less access to fresh food. That program enabled him and his partner, actor Wendell Pierce, to create Sterling Farms, Henry said.
Their business is still heaviest at the beginning of the month, when food-stamps are handed out, he said. Likewise, when it drops off toward the end of the month as food stamps run out, he has to reduce staff hours — prompting Harris-Perry to point out the “stimulative” value of food stamps, since Henry could hire more workers if his customers could afford more food.
On the national scale, the panelists agreed, the best way to help is for voters to put pressure on their elected officials, particularly the Senators who will vote on the food-stamp bill soon. But at home, it also helps to shop local, they said — whether with Henry’s Sterling Farms, other independent local grocers, or even farmers’ markets.
“After we get that model perfected, we’re going to decide how we can scale,” Henry said. “We think it’s a good business to do well and to do good.”
To read live coverage of the forum, see below.