Make it healthy, not hungry

When the U.S. Congress decided recently that pizza contains enough tomato paste to qualify as a vegetable for school lunches, my college-age son emailed me a news link under the subject line, “I’ve been eating plenty of veggies. …”

Since I nagged him about the lack of vegetables in his diet, I had to laugh.

But there is nothing funny about the fact that nearly a billion people around the world – including 49 million in the United States – don’t even have regular access to vegetables, fruits and other healthy foods, according to WhyHunger, an organization working to connect people to nutritious, affordable food.

People who are part of these “food insecure” households sometimes live in “food deserts” — neighborhoods or communities that may have fast-food outlets and convenience stores but few retailers selling affordable fresh produce and other nutritious foods. Take a look at the “deserts” in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’sinteractive “food desert locator” map.

In New York State, a study endorsed by the American Cancer Society found food deserts in 32 of 62 counties. Of the 656,000 residents living in these areas, 86 percent are in urban neighborhoods and the rest in rural communities.

The child in Africa who literally eats mud pies to survive may seem a world apart from the American kid who fills a rumbling stomach with puffed bits of nothingness disguised as cheap snacks, but are they really so different?

That’s why solving the hunger crisis domestically will take more than just sending pallets of government cheese to food pantries. The New York study, for example, recommends a one-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened drinks to help fund efforts such as childhood obesity programs, community gardens and grocery expansion loans.

At my church, St. Paul and St. Andrew United Methodist in Manhattan, the West Side Campaign Against Hunger schedules nutrition workshops and cooking demonstrations using food available at the pantry. The campaign’s “customer chef” training program teaches participants how to cook healthy meals and improve job skills.

On an international level, the goal of “food security” is to move beyond the provision of immediate food aid to finding ways in which local communities can sustain themselves during times of drought or other impediments to food production.

In a recent interview (http://bit.ly/sbDGfJ) with Chris Herlinger of Church World Service, Paul Weisenfeld, who heads the USAID’s Bureau for Food Security, spoke about the immense practicality of investing in food security for all.

“Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’ and we know that instability in one place in the world can affect our country, and disrupt our own economy,” Weisenfeld pointed out. “By contrast, stability helps us as a country.

“Three countries that once received U.S. foreign assistance, including food aid and agricultural development assistance — Mexico, South Korea and Brazil — are now among the top 10 importers of U.S. products. By what we do now, we can create stability around the world and help build the markets of tomorrow. But the key point is: we can make a difference now and address the root causes of hunger and poverty.”

That “key point” is exactly what U.S. religious leaders have been trying to tell Congress in its tussle over the federal budget. The only practical effect of cutting the minute portions of the budget that help the poor feed themselves is to undo the gains being made in the fight against hunger.

Maybe Congress should order in some pizzas while it ponders that dilemma.


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