March 31, 2011 Liz Borkowski, MPH 2Comment

New York Times columnist Mark Bittman (famous for his writing on food) reported on Tuesday that he was joining more than 4,000 others who’ve been fasting to call attention to House legislation’s proposed cuts to programs for the poor and hungry. He explains:

[The poor] are — once again — under attack, this time in the House budget bill, H.R. 1. The budget proposes cuts in the WIC program (which supports women, infants and children), in international food and health aid (18 million people would be immediately cut off from a much-needed food stream, and 4 million would lose access to malaria medicine) and in programs that aid farmers in underdeveloped countries. Food stamps are also being attacked, in the twisted “Welfare Reform 2011” bill. (There are other egregious maneuvers in H.R. 1, but I’m sticking to those related to food.)

These supposedly deficit-reducing cuts — they’d barely make a dent — will quite literally cause more people to starve to death, go to bed hungry or live more miserably than are doing so now. And: The bill would increase defense spending.

I’m ashamed to live in a country where tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the wealthy take priority over food assistance to the neediest. Leaving aside the issue of our morally indefensible priorities, though, these proposed cuts are also misguided if the goal reducing the deficit.

When Mark Zandi of Moody’s investigated the effects of the fiscal stimulus, he found that increased spending on food stamps had the greatest bang for the buck – each dollar spent generated $1.74 in economic activity, compared to just $0.32 for making the Bush income tax cuts permanent. That’s because people who receive food stamps go out and spend them in their communities, rather than saving the money or using it to pay off debts. Money spent in a grocery store can go to pay store employees, who in turn are likely to spend it on goods and services.

In addition to their up-front boost to economic activity, food stamps and other forms of nutrition assistance are also an investment in our workforce. I’ve written before about people who’ve chronicled their efforts to eat a nutritious diet on a food-stamp budget, and they report feelings of irritability, low energy, and difficulty focusing (as well as hunger pangs). None of this sounds like a recipe for a productive, high-achieving workforce – or for neighbors who’ll contribute to a thriving community.

And even if members of Congress think it’s okay for adults to suffer food insecurity, I hope they support adequate nutrition for children. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reports that about 75% of food stamp recipients live in households that include children, who can be particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of food insecurity. Feeding America writes that children from food-insecure families are at greater risk of overall poor health; of slow or unusual development in speaking, behavior, and movement; and of impaired academic development. School lunch and breakfast programs help many children, but school isn’t in session every day of the week or year.

Nutrition assistance programs are good for the economy and for public health. Given how many people are struggling economically these days, these programs should be expanded, not cut.

2 thoughts on “Mark Bittman & Others Fasting to Preserve Budget for Food Assistance

  1. What people really really need to stor keeping their heads in the sand about is that these descriptions of irritability and “increased risk” blah blah, which are the standard way of describing hunger (so not blaming or directing this at the fine blogger of concern here) are BULLSHIT.

    If there is one thing an organism needs most it is ENERGY.
    People are chemical reactions! You cannot expect to put way less of one reactant in and get the same or even CLOSE to the same total result, obviously!

    It’s not a matter of “risk” there WILL be severe adverse effects on the behavior and mental and physical abilities and development and everything else about the organism!

    Step away from the comforting delusions with your hands in the air.

    It’s not a matter of feeling bad, it will NECESSARILY cause MAJOR problems, especially over the long run. That these problems don’t have diagnoses associated with them until they are blatantly visually apparent doesn’t change that fact (marasmus etc.)

    Also, the problems of *chronic* hunger in the weeks and months and more range are a million times worse than the hunger that most of the people reading this may be familiar with.

    The human body can store a couple days worth of fat, carbohydrates and some protein and vitamins that can be drawn on during short term bouts of hunger. As time goes on these run out and then MAJOR compromises need to be made as enough reactants just aren’t there anymore.

    And yes there are many ways organisms have developed to minimize the harm of insufficient food, but that doesn’t change the fact: insufficient reactants is VERY, globally, bad.

  2. Derek, I’m glad you’re so passionate about the need to end hunger. The reason that my statement – which is a summary of what’s described in more detail on Feeding America’s page – is phrased in terms of risk is that it’s about research findings. Policies about nutrition assistance (and I’m focusing here on US policies) should be based on research findings, so advocates like Feeding America speak and write about what the research finds.

    Research studies on these kinds of issues look for specific outcomes in specific populations, and they don’t usually find the outcome in every member of the population of interest. So, a researcher investigating hunger’s effects on academic performance might find out how many children from food-insecure households have been required to repeat a grade in school compared to children from food-secure households. Maybe X% of students from food-secure households have to repeat a grade, and the percentage is higher for students of food-insecure households. Not all students from food-insecure households will have this particular outcome, so we can’t make a definitive statement that hunger causes poor academic outcomes. That doesn’t mean that hungry students aren’t experiencing negative effects that influence their education in some way, but researchers won’t necessarily make that claim.

    Also note the use of the term “food-insecure household” or “food-insecure families,” which is often how researchers identify populations for the purposes of hunger research. USDA describes food insecurity as “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” So, a family where the children did have access to adequate food but the parents were constantly worrying about food and occasionally skipping a meal themselves would qualify as “food-insecure.”

    In this country, where the problem is not an overall inadequate supply of food, advocates aren’t just looking at energy-in/energy-out equations but on the effects of things like anxiety about being able to purchase enough food for a household.

    This is why you get US policy advocates speaking and writing in the kinds of language you’re objecting to. And as a blogger, I make a habit of writing things where I know I can point to evidence of what I’m writing.

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