$26.9 million in grant funds will be distributed among eight grantees to continue administering pilots of the Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer for Children (Summer EBT) programs, providing summertime nutrition assistance to children who receive free and reduced price meals during the school year. These grants will extend benefits to new rural areas, Tribal Nations, and areas of extreme need including Flint, Michigan. Summer EBT provides a monthly benefit on a debit-type card that can be used throughout the summer for food purchases at authorized stores. Summer EBT is a complement to traditional summer meals programs, which offer no cost summer meals at approved sites, and is especially valuable in areas with limited or no access to traditional summer meals programs.The Obama administration also shared its plan to include a provision in the president's 2017 budget, which would allocate $12 billion over 10 years to the Summer EBT program.
Summer EBT, which is currently operating as demonstration project, was first funded by Congress in 2010. Rigorous evaluations of these pilots found that Summer EBT can significantly reduce very low food security among children, the most severe form of food insecurity, by one-third. Studies also showed that these additional resources enabled families to eat more healthfully, eating significantly more fruits and vegetables and whole grains – key building blocks to better health. Based on these proven successes, the President's proposed plan would allow Summer EBT to reach nearly 20 million children once fully implemented.
Bill Ayres, Co-founder and Ambassador of WhyHunger, supports the program: "Some years ago as Executive Director of WhyHunger, I met with senators and USDA officials about this very idea - that is, to run a pilot program to feed hungry children during the summer when they do not receive school lunch and breakfast. It was really a simple idea. Additional funds are added to the family's SNAP Card each month when the children are not in school. Though it's many years since that first meeting when the idea was proposed, I'm so pleased to see that there are now bills in Congress to grow the program nationally and President Obama has put it in the budget for a major increase. WhyHunger supports the growth of this program and encourages people and organizations to promote much needed food for our country's poorest children."
This year's grantees include Cherokee Nation, Chickasaw Nation, Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, and Oregon. The aim is to serve over 250,000 children total, nearly 90 percent more, or over 120,000 additional children, than in 2015. Read the rest of the press release here.
This post first appeared in The Huffington Post.
“It’s the economy stupid.” “End welfare as we know it.”
These two quotes from the era of President Bill Clinton summarize two of what supporters and even many critics say were his two greatest domestic policy accomplishments. The economy certainly improved dramatically during his tenure. The late 90s did “lift all economic boats” including the tiny rowboats of the poor. Unemployment was 7.5 in 1992 the year before Clinton took office and plummeted to 4.0 by the end of his tenure. During that time 23.9 million jobs were created, more living wage jobs than now. The federal deficit which was $290 BILLION in 1992 flipped to a surplus of $236.4 BILLION by 2000. All in all, it is an impressive economic legacy.
AND, President Clinton did “end welfare as we know it.” His best ally in this fight was the Republican Party. At the time that the legislation passed there were 4 million families on the new version of welfare, TANF Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. That number has been reduced to some 1.6 million today. Benefits have fallen by 32.5 percent due to inflation and half of those on the program live in only two states, New York and California. Two thirds of all the funds allocated by congress for TANF are spent on non TANF budget items. The money has been block-granted to the states and they decide how to spend it.
At the time of the welfare reform passage the economy was humming and many of the poorest of the poor were able to find jobs. The reform was seen to be a major success for the Clinton Administration. Since then we have seen a very different story. During the deepest bottom of the Great Recession of 2008 the New York Times reported that there were 8 million people whose only income was Food Stamps, now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Most people did not even apply for TANF because they knew there was little or no money available in their state. Thankfully, the economy has improved and unemployment has been cut in half but there are still 24.4 million people in deep poverty, making less than half of the federal poverty line of $24,250 for a family of four. There are 7 million children and teens living in deep poverty. The vast majority receive nothing from TANF.
President Clinton vetoed the welfare legislation twice before he signed it. The Republicans threw in severe cuts to Food Stamps that Clinton did not like but, in the end, he signed the legislation. Hillary Clinton encouraged him to sign it. She believed that generous work support programs like Earned Income Tax Credit, free childcare programs, mandated support from absent parents (mostly fathers) and housing support programs added to even low wage job earnings would support a deeply poor family. Many who were involved in the legislation were disappointed but thought it might work as long as the economy was healthy. It has not worked that way for millions of children and their parents.
Last week, we celebrated the critical donations of time and talent that so many give to WhyHunger and our partner organizations each year as part of National Volunteer Week. This week, we are lifting up the importance of volunteers once again in this Q&A with Kate Cahill, Board of Trustees and Treasurer at MEND, Meeting Emergency Needs with Dignity.
Why is MEND volunteer run?
MEND is a coalition of 16 food pantries across Essex County, NJ, and each of those pantries, which are based in houses of worship, are run almost entirely by volunteers. Historically, much food pantry work has been volunteer-based, especially in churches and temples, as a secular expression of religious faith in their communities. MEND has served those in need, regardless of religious affiliation, for 36 years, and its structure reflects that rich history.
Over time, the increasing need in Essex County, the dedication and appeal of caring for one’s neighbor, and the desire to give back has attracted community members to the effort. Today many of our pantries’ volunteer corps are comprised of a mix of those from the house of worship and the community. That said, MEND does have a part-time Coordinator from Catholic Charities, to whom MEND contributes a portion of her salary. She serves as the central point for the MEND pantries in terms of coordinating activities and communication with pantry managers, as well as the primary intermediary between the pantries and the MEND board of trustees.
How many volunteers are there? Is there a general number of volunteer hours? Are there various tasks they are working on a day to day basis?
Volunteers work at two levels, with the individual pantries and with MEND’s central office. Most volunteers serve at MEND’s 16 pantries in roles that involve transporting, collecting, and distributing food. Each pantry has a pantry manager and a core group of volunteers. Larger pantries have additional tiers or teams of volunteers for specific tasks or days. Each pantry operates on its own schedule (for daily, weekly, or monthly distributions), and recruits its own volunteers. The distribution schedule, number of patrons typically served, and storage and operating space available to each pantry will determine its number of volunteers and how many hours each will contribute. Holidays, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, will require extra volunteers. While MEND does not track each pantry’s specific volunteer hours per week or month, we can comfortably say that approximately 250-300 volunteers support MEND pantries.
Across pantries, whether large or small, the tasks are quite similar. All pantries must resource food (through fundraising, food drives, community food bank purchases, sales at grocery stores, and MEND donations of food and funds), sort it, shelve it, and package it for distribution to their patrons. Some MEND pantries offer soup kitchens or day care with specific groups that run these activities.
One key benefit of being a MEND pantry is the MEND Advisory Board, which is a monthly forum for pantry managers to share best practices as well as frequent challenges. MEND views its pantry managers as critical resources and strives to support them in these especially demanding times. The Advisory Board is led by MEND’s Coordinator, and it is also the primary mechanism for communicating and implementing MEND activities, such as food drives, holiday family support, fundraisers, and advocacy for those in need.
From time to time, volunteers may work at MEND’s central office, usually on a specific project, such as a newsletter or special event. The MEND board of trustees is a working board, and its members fulfill various roles on a volunteer basis, such as running the annual MEND gala, promotion and social media efforts, advocacy, fundraising, grant writing, and cultivation of donors. MEND recently hired a part-time grant writer, who is managed jointly by a board member and the Coordinator.
How do you see the community being impacted/changed by the amazing work MEND is doing?
We are stronger together. In aggregate, MEND pantries serve over 100,000 individuals each year, and throughout its 36-year history, have served 1.8 million. Consequently, MEND’s track record, growing visibility, support, and infrastructure allow its pantries to better do what they do best, serve their clients! While local pantries are a wonderful source of knowledge around what their patrons need most, they often do not have the budget or the resources to always identify those who are in need, fundraise sufficiently, or find the time to advocate on their own. With MEND’s support, pantries can have a greater impact at the local level, and together, at the county and state level.
As MEND pantries become more effective, they attract additional volunteers who are looking for opportunities to become involved with their communities and give back. We hope that as we raise awareness of our pantries, and about hunger and those in need, we inspire more individuals in the community to support our pantries in the campaign for food justice.
Could you speak a little bit about the power of volunteering and how much of a difference volunteers make?
The power of volunteering can be immense as passions are tapped for worthy causes. What is important is to have a practical avenue for those passions so they are leveraged to the fullest. At MEND, we strive to support our pantries and our organization in ways that provide volunteers with meaningful roles. This is an ongoing effort as needs change and new ideas arise. To think a few hundred volunteers each month can serve over 100,000 in need during the course of a year is an amazing testament to the power of volunteering.
Do you have any advice for people who want to start volunteering but maybe don’t know how to go about doing so?
Ask in your community! If you start local, you may be able to tap friends and colleagues for advice. There’s nothing better than serving in the community in which you live. You’ll meet new people with similar interests and may see an entirely different side of life. Educate yourself on the cause, and who knows where it will lead. If there’s an organization or group with a mission that might fit your passion, contact them. Most organizations that could use help are really busy and don’t have resources for public relations or outreach, but they would be very happy to hear from you. As you get further involved in the world of volunteering you’ll learn of more and varied opportunities to give back. Chances are your initial experiences will be a stepping stone to finding the right fit. Then you can become an inspiration and ambassador for volunteering and help others get involved as well.
WhyHunger’s Community Partnerships Manager Suzanne Babb, recently spoke at Wholesome Wave’s Transforming Food Access Summit about the role and limitations of existing nutrition incentive programs to address the unequal access to good, fresh, affordable healthy food and the poor health outcomes that some communities experience as a result.
Here is an excerpt from her remarks:
Let’s start with a provocative question: Is providing access to healthy food enough to address the food insecurity and poor health outcomes that have become so entrenched in certain communities?
We must first ask why do these inequities exist in the first place? Why do some communities have readily accessible healthy food and what makes it so unaffordable for others? What can we learn by examining the social determinants of health? What can we learn by exploring the systems that perpetuate hunger and poverty in our country and what is the relevance to nutrition incentive programs?
Part of the answer may lie in looking at the environmental factors that influence a person’s health, more commonly known in the public health world as the social determinants of health. Health is affected by individual choices AND community, environment, culture, connectedness and institutional policies and practices.
Here’s a traditional model of the five determinant areas that reflects a number of critical components/key issues that affect health outcomes. In this version, access to healthy food is just one critical component under “Neighborhood and Built Environment” in determining health outcomes. But here’s the thing: This diagram assumes is that these determinants collectively affect each person’s health in the same way, all things being equal.
Now let’s look at different model, from the “Gathering Wisdom” First Nations health conference in Canada.
The difference is that this version recognizes that all things are not equal. It shows that there other factors at play, like systems of oppression that affect women and people of color more persistently that show up in the form of racism, sexism rooted in a history of colonization and social injustice. These systems of oppression create persistent inequities in access, resources and opportunities that impact health. In other words, you have a society where certain communities have more power and privilege than others.
Because this diagram was created by the community that is directly affected by these issues, it shows a fuller and deeper analysis of what needs to be addressed to bring about better health in their community. It also underscores the importance of a culturally- appropriate lens. For example this diagram was created by the First Nations communities and they asked: Does the land where I live have clean water, are there good jobs, health services, safe housing? How does racism, colonization, or local control of resources affect wellness of both the individual and of a nation? What about the intersections between wellness and the justice system, self-determination, child protection, and revitalization of language?
Sometime these concepts can seem theoretical and abstract. But the point is these are all factors that play a role in poor health outcomes and food insecurity. The imbalances of power and privilege and the inequities they create get played out in every space in which we work, live and play, including in our own organizations and programs. And in all of these spaces there is opportunity to shift this dynamic.
Suzanne ended her remarks asking folks to consider additional questions: How can we make nutrition incentive programs more equitable for those who are participating in them? How can we shift the power dynamic? How can we demonstrate and value people as experts in their own experience? How do our programs change or evolve when we use a lens that considers the root causes of poor health in the first place?
I had the pleasure of getting to know Norah Mlondobozi when she visited the WhyHunger office and we became roommates as we participated in the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance (USFSA) Assembly held last fall in Iowa for a few days. Norah is a member of the Rural Women’s Assembly (RWA), which is a coalition of rural women in southern Africa organizing and advocating on the issues that impact them including land rights, xenophobia, violence against women and more.
As Norah shared her story what immediately stood out for me are the similar struggles Blacks face whether here in the US or in Africa. Norah spoke about how for so long Black South Africans had no access/ownership of the land that they worked on, and then in 1994 at the end of Apartheid promises were made to redistribute the land, but it largely didn’t happen. And those that were given land, were given bad, unproductive land so the officials could then turn around and say “see, Blacks can’t produce or aren’t educated/profitable enough to own land” and then take it back. Sounds like a familiar process, right?
I admit, for me personally, I tend to have a jaded perspective or view that this longtime system and cycle of oppression will seemingly never end for various reasons, personality included. But most of all, it’s based on my experience as a Black woman in the US and that of my family’s experiences throughout time. Struggles of discrimination, lack of access to resources, police brutality, etc. are present whether it’s 1947 or 2016. My mom however is a great woman of faith who can continue to find hope in any situation. Similar to Norah, who has more hope with less, compared to me in terms of her rights as a Black woman in South Africa vs. a Black woman in the US, and yet she still believes that things will change, even if only little by little, as long we continue to work for it and spread education to others. This can seem like a daunting task, but one that Norah and other indigenous leaders around the world are willing to take on to create change. Below is a brief Q & A from my time with Norah:
Calondra: Tell us a little about where you’re from.
Norah: I’m from the Mopani District of South Africa, which is very rural and where the mopane worms are a valuable source of income and food because they have lots of protein; however, they are being impacted because of climate change and not enough rain. I’m a small-scale farmer on common land that was previously owned by a white commercial farmer and I have 8 people on my farm where we grow vegetables like green peppers, okra, green beans and cabbage.
Calondra: Why were/are you interested in the USFSA?
Norah: As a small-scale farmer I am interested in fighting for agroecology and learning how to farm that way. Our government only mainly supports commercial farmers and when they do give us something it’s GMO seeds and pesticides to produce maize.
Calondra: And how are you doing that work?
Norah: I am connected with other rural women through the Rural Women’s Assembly organization. The focus is on rural women, because we are primarily responsible for producing food but don’t have enough access to land. In the SADC region of South Africa, men mainly have the right to own land. Through this group we are fighting against xenophobia, violence against women and fighting for indigenous seeds, land rights and for women to recognized as food producers. The commercial farmers export food out of the country. What we produce feeds the people.
Calondra: What’s something you learned on your visit to the US?
Norah: As someone who produces tomatoes I was told that it was impossible to do it without pesticides. Then I came here, and I’ve had very nice, tasty tomatoes grown organically - no pesticides. There are also more urban markets here and a lot of food, so much food.
Calondra: What is one of your struggles?
Norah: Lack of resources. It’s very hard to mobilize and reach other women, especially in deep rural areas to spread the word about agroecology and help them unlearn what the companies and big foundations have taught them. Representatives from the Gates Foundation and Department of Agriculture officials go around “advising” people to use pesticides/GMOS, and promise high yields. And many tend to trust them, because they have seen success at being able to produce enough to make a living. But no one really talks about or advises on healthier alternatives like agroecology.
Calondra: And hope?
Norah: Progress is happening. A commercial farmer who has used pesticides for years is noticing that the land isn’t good. He is now using compost and embracing agroecology and working with our local Department of Agriculture to have a couple of officials who can train others. We’ve also identified a farm where we plan to produce maize, and then we can grind it to make “mealie meal,” a staple food that we eat every day, and can sell to the community and save and distribute the seeds. Non-GMO seeds. We just need more land, access to the market and less restrictions, that will allow us to have more control and produce our own food the way we want.
As you read it, I hope you learned a little bit about Norah and what she’s fighting for, and got inspired as I did, to continue to support and stand in solidarity with those fighting at the forefront to make this world a better place. Thank you Norah for sharing with us! To learn more about the Rural Women’s Assembly visit here.
“Solidarity does not assume that our struggles are the same struggles, or that our pain is the same pain, or that our hope is for the same future. Solidarity involves commitment, and work, as well as the recognition that even if we do not have the same feelings, or the same lives, or the same bodies, we do live on common ground.” -Sara Ahmed, University of London Professor
“Land is life,” say peasant farmers. Of course, food and water come from the land, but for the billions of peasants who survive from the land, this is not just an abstract statement. Losing their land – often evicted and displaced violently by police or paramilitary gangs to make way for large-scale, industrial agriculture and extractive development projects – means poverty, hunger, and desperation.
So, it is not a surprise that these same peasants often put their own lives on the line to reclaim land for their families.
This past week, two members of the Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) were killed in what the MST calls an “ambush” by the state police and private security hired by a logging company. Vilmar Bordim (44, married with three children) and Leomar Bhorbak (25, whose wife is nine-months pregnant) were both residents of the MST encampment in the state of Parana, where 1,500 families live on public land desired by the logging company Araupel.
Vilmar and Leomar gave up their lives so that their families could have some land, because land is life.
The MST organizes landless peasant families to nonviolently occupy unused land in accordance with the Brazilian government’s constitutional obligation to ensure agrarian reform for the people. The MST has successfully put over 250,000 families back on the land to produce healthy foods and live in peace.
April 17th is celebrated as the International Day of Peasants’ Struggles by the international peasant movement La Via Campesina, which the MST helped to found in the 1990s. It was originally designated to mark the Massacre of Eldorado dos Carajás, on April 17, 1996, when 19 members of the MST were killed during a nonviolent occupation. This year is the 20th anniversary of that date, and still the struggle continues and peasants sacrifice their lives.
April 17th is not meant to be a sad day, however. It is a day to honor sacrifice, but it is also a day to celebrate victory.
Recently, thousands of families in the community of Paanama in Sri Lanka were able to reclaim their land after 6 years of constant struggle amidst threats and intimidation. Their struggle began in 2010 when armed men shot at members of the community, chased them away, and burned their homes. Then, the military moved in and the government claimed it as their land, intending to build tourist resorts on beachfront land.
The Sri Lankan government has repeatedly told the people that large-scale, corporate-led tourism is the only way to develop the economy and create jobs for the country. The government continues to support this policy, and land conflicts have flared up all over the country as land and beachfront are taken from the people for tourist development.
But the people in Paanama remained steadfast in their fight to reclaim their land, even though they were living in camps and threatened by violence.
They petitioned their local government for their land back, but when those politicians did nothing, they shocked the country and voted them out of office. Then, the peasants took their fight to the national level and to the courts, voting out the old President, Rajapaksa, and pressuring the new President, Sirisena, to return the land to the people. But even after the new President promised that the land would be returned, the people were blocked at every attempt to access their homes. They joined national movements for food sovereignty like the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO) and the Movement for National Land and Agrarian Reform (MONLAR), and they peacefully occupied their lands and continually asserted their rights to their homes.
Finally, in late March of this year, the courts ruled that the people should have full access to their lands.
An organizer with NAFSO told me that through their 6 year struggle, the people of Paanama have been transformed. They think for themselves and trust their own democratic choices. They reject the government and its policies that support corporate-led tourism at the cost of the people, and they say that they can do better for themselves farming and fishing on their land and water, using agroecology and traditional ways to produce food. And they say that even if tourism is really the best way to develop the country, then they can do it themselves; they don’t need land grabbing to bring in tourists.
Throughout this weekend and the week of April 17th, WhyHunger stands with La Via Campesina and countless other organizations to recognize the struggle of small-scale food producers to create a better world. We encourage others to get involved by visiting the websites of Via Campesina and the US Food Sovereignty Alliance to learn more.
As part of our donor series to show appreciation to some our valued supporters, today we meet Gail Weisgrau and Gregory DeRespino. Join us in celebrating them and the good they do by contributing to their communities and the work of WhyHunger.
Greg, tell us a little about yourself.
There are those who say I am "younger than my years,” in mind and body. I’ve been characterized as well-spoken, adventurous, witty, conversational, opinionated, sometimes controversial, chivalrous, spontaneous and ALWAYS FUN! I am a passionate contributor, eager volunteer & pro-bono advocate in support of many causes and charitable endeavors annually. Some, like WhyHunger [since 1993] and Theatre Within [since 2006], as often as they ask and my disposable income allows!
What is your profession?
I am a career theatrical professional, as well as a part-time FM Radio Disc Jockey/Program Host, occasional MC and Public Address Announcer. In my main craft, I have been a Properties Master on many Broadway shows and have toured throughout the US, Europe and Asia in support of a variety of talented individuals and companies. Currently, I am a member of some local, Union crew[s] providing technical support in lighting, staging and audio for touring entertainment events at various venues in the NYC area.
How did you first learn about WhyHunger and what excites or inspires you about our work?
Well, I first “met” co-founder Harry Chapin through his recorded music that my mother and uncle played when I was about 12 or 13. By the time I was 17, I went to his concert in the gymnasium of my local college and it was a magical experience. Those few hours have had far-reaching effects on my life and work than I could ever have imagined "down the road!"
In the lobby after the show, Harry chatted with and signed autographs for everyone who asked and for the first time in my life, I experienced selflessness in a famous person on a mission to change the world! Not only was he accessible, but he stayed after for almost as long as the concert itself. This impressed me more so for the energy and exuberance it took than the actual message, which did not fully sink in for me until many years later. A message that I would later make my mantra and commit to in the volunteerism I would begin for WhyHunger some 14 years later.
Now, more than 24 years later, I am as committed (if not more so) to the goals and ideals he spoke of back then, a voice which, although physically silenced by an untimely death, is alive and well via through WhyHunger with its growing leadership and supporters. I appreciate the commitment of the people who are involved with the organization, the vision of a future where hunger is defeated forever and the inclusiveness and possibility that one person can and will make a difference. One idea, one family, one "circle" and "one light in a dark valley" will bring Harry's dream to reality!
Gail, tell us a little about yourself.
I am person who loves animals – sometimes I love animals more than I love people – but I love people too. I am also now semi-retired which I love … it’s taken me 50 years to get here – but now that I’m here I can’t think of anything better, because while I love working, I love also having my free time.
What is your profession?
I am still a billing specialist at a consulting firm. That makes it great for me because I can work from home – which I can do very easily.
How did you first learn about WhyHunger and what excites or inspires you about our work?
I first learned about WhyHunger about 15 years ago, I believe on radio station WCBS Newsradio 880. I went on the internet to look you up and saw you were looking for volunteers for Hungerthon. Since one of the things I love to do is talk to people, it seemed like a great opportunity to do that while helping out a great organization at the same time. I have now been volunteering for Hungerthon for 15 years – and hope to do it for another 15!
What excites me about your work is that you are helping so many people to get the food they need and the tools they need to learn how to cultivate the food themselves.
On Thursday, March 24, Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor of the influential hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, passed away after a decades-long struggle with diabetes.
A Tribe Called Quest (or just “Tribe”) broke new ground in hip-hop in the early 1990s with clever, fun, Afrocentric lyrics and a conscious love for culture and community, layered over jazz beats. One of Tribe’s remarkable achievements is expressing the positivity and wisdom of our cultural traditions and our ancestral knowledge without sugarcoating what is often a harsh and difficult reality. And though WhyHunger has never had a formal connection to A Tribe Called Quest, their music in many ways reflects our organization’s values of making a better world and lifting up the voices and the realities of everyday people.
And though Phife was often the sidekick to Q-Tip, the group’s more famous frontman (their third member, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, was the DJ), he was the one whose blunt and honest lyrics grounded the group in real life and everyday struggles.
In fact, I first learned about the problems in our food system from their songs “Ham n’ Eggs,” when Phife celebrates African and Caribbean food culture and raps about healthy eating, and “Award Tour,” when Phife puts his diabetes front and center in his rhymes, immediately removing any stigma: “Mr. Energetic, who me sound pathetic?/when’s the last time you heard a funky diabetic?”
Yet, while there have been many articles expressing gratitude and offering memories of Phife and his contributions, there have not been many that really address diabetes, the cause of Phife’s death. Diabetes is a major health crisis: it affects one third of the population and is the seventh leading cause of death. But it is also a major political crisis because it means that our national food policies are failing so many: Phife struggled to manage his diabetes and was literally killed by junk food. As both a long-time A Tribe Called Quest fan and a food justice activist, I wanted to write a piece to talk about this health crisis and offer my own kind of tribute to Phife.
Phife will be one of an estimated 240,000 deaths due, at least in part, to diabetes in the United States this year. 30 million people have diabetes, 90 million Americans have pre-diabetes, and one million more people are diagnosed with diabetes every year. Diabetes disproportionately affects people of color and low-income communities: Black, Latino, and Native American communities are about twice as likely to develop Type 2 diabetes (the kind caused by malnutrition and obesity) than are non-Hispanic whites; and low-income communities are more than twice as likely to develop Type 2 diabetes as communities with median incomes above the poverty line.
While we often think of nutrition and health in terms of personal choices and lifestyles, the diabetes crisis represents systemic malnutrition on a national scale, meaning that we need to think about systems. Our food system is structured so that healthier food is often the most expensive while the most affordable food is also the most highly-processed, unhealthy, and addictive. Moreover, healthy food often isn’t even available – there just aren’t any grocery stores or restaurants that have healthy options – in many low-income communities and communities of color.
When communities don’t have access to nutritious, affordable food, it is extremely difficult to be healthy and extremely easy to develop diseases like diabetes. Phife’s situation was actually different - he inherited the much rarer Type 1 diabetes instead of developing Type 2 diabetes – but he also inherited a city (New York City) whose food system is very much structured by racism and classism, like most of the country.
One major reason that the food system remains so structurally oppressive is that agribusiness companies and their lobbyists have heavily influenced our national food policy to ensure that they can continue to profit from their processed food products. In part, these companies get away with selling such unhealthy food because they sell it to people who are already marginalized and oppressed in US society and have little political power to fight back.
In Beats, Rhymes, and Life, a recent documentary about A Tribe Called Quest, Phife confessed that he was “addicted to sugar.” As a rapper and lyricist, Phife knows the meaning of words, so when he likens junk food to an addictive drug, we should pay attention. In fact, journalists have uncovered how the largest agri-foods companies use chemicals to manipulate our taste buds and use the latest advertising and marketing to manipulate our brains into buying their product.
And these same companies have used lots of money and extensive lobbying to make sure our federal government supports them.
NYU professor Marion Nestle recently wrote about how drastically agribusiness lobbying and political influence impacts the food we eat:
“If you were to create a meal that matched where the government historically aimed its subsidies, you’d get a lecture from your doctor; more than three-quarters of your plate would be taken up by a massive corn fritter (80 percent of benefits go to corn, grains and soy oil). You’d have a Dixie cup of milk (dairy gets 3 percent), a hamburger the size of a half dollar (livestock: 2 percent), two peas (fruits and vegetables: 0.45 percent) and an after-dinner cigarette (tobacco: 2 percent). Oh, and a really big linen napkin (cotton: 13 percent) to dab your lips.”
With federal food priorities like this, is it any surprise that we have what some call “food apartheid,” and that whether you are nourished and healthy is determined primarily by your race, your class, and where you live?
As a rapper, Phife was known and beloved for being honest and blunt, so it is only right to be honest and blunt about the ills of our food system after his death. His death and his struggle with diabetes urges us to do something about this enormous crisis in the food system.
And, not so surprisingly, even his lyrics offer a pretty clear guide about the kinds of food a national food policy should support:
“Asparagus tips look yummy, yummy, yummy/
Candied yams inside my tummy/
A collage of good eats, some snacks or nice treats/
Apple sauce and some nice red beets/
This is what we snack on when we're questin'/
No second guessin'.”