Food Policies

Should We Be Thinking About Hunger When We Talk About Food?

Martha Bayne of Soup and Bread fame, among a number of other things, has a heartfelt essay at Time Out Chicago about hunger— a perennial topic at Thanksgiving, to be sure, but one to which she brings a modern media-consciousness. In fact her particular starting point is:

Lately the conversation around food has heated up to the point where it doesn’t seem to aspire to the act of eating at all. Instead, local food scribes scramble to scoop each other on restaurant openings and closings and chefly comings and goings. Column inches and digital bandwidth detail the city’s 50 best sandwiches and cutest servers… Food itself sometimes seems an afterthought, given the attention paid to chefs’ personalities and peccadillos.

Bayne, in a subtle, unscreedy way, basically calls out the food scene for Marie Antoinettism, a let-em-eat-$5-cupcakes attitude that overlooks hunger in the context of food. It’s not a matter of whether she’s right or not about the excess part— you can always find examples of obliviousness and decadence in a subject rooted in personal pleasure and the vanity of celebrity. But is she right that the scene neglects hunger and thus, neglects a central aspect of food?

She acknowledges that there is a lot of charitable activity in the restaurant business aimed at hunger— “In one week last year alone, restaurants across the country raised a cool $2.275 million for Share Our Strength’s campaign to end childhood hunger.” (There’s also the fact that an industry which employs millions of entry-level and immigrant workers is arguably the most effective anti-hunger program of all.) Bayne is more concerned about the attitude that pushes the real issue out of mind:

Charity shindigs like the [Meals on Wheels] benefit, or the more accessible Baconfest, which raised $50,000 for the Food Depository this year, fight hunger by fostering an atmosphere of plenty; buy a ticket and you’re immersed in a fantasy of abundance. Have another cocktail! Eat more bacon! Enlightened self-interest is part of the luxe package. Scarcity—the reason we’re there—lurks in the fine print, if at all.

This is where we started off on our own track, reading the piece. Bayne explicitly sees the problem as a Malthusian one, of supposed plenty versus actual scarcity— “The world of fine dining and the food pages of glossy weeklies need people to buy into the belief that we live in a land of plenty, even for just the time it takes to plow through a tasting menu.”

But in fact, we do live in a land of plenty. Tossing some quickly-Googled stats around (we’re happy to be corrected if we get them wrong), American farmers produce half again as many calories per person as Americans consume (and that’s too many anyway). That’s why corn can go into our cars instead of our mouths without causing famine. Even in terms of government aid, it’s a problem that by raw numbers approaches being solved— if 50 million are at food risk, 47 million already get food stamps. Where hunger happens, it’s at least as often a matter of outside factors— food deserts and other distribution failings, sudden disasters like Sandy, personal dysfunction that gets in the way of taking advantage of the food available— not that the food doesn’t exist to begin with.

Our problem is more that we have gotten good at producing vast quantities of bad food— nutrition-light, overprocessed, environmentally-destructive food. And the way to solve that isn’t so much with government (big processors of junk have a funny habit of actually being helped by government to crowd the better producers out, not of being restrained by it) but by creating markets which can support better producers. And here we would credit the food scene with actually having done a pretty good job— creating a subculture that goes around knowing the names of artisan producers and natural farmers and asks for them by name. You can make fun of that in a Portlandia way, but it’s done for farming and the supply chain exactly what Bayne wishes we’d do for hunger— “foreground the issue a bit.”

Of course, it isn’t an either/or, and it’s good when we see hunger take its place as an issue, too. But we think it’s important to recognize that there’s a quality as well as a quantity side to the food issue and that the former is, in fact, an ongoing success story for the social impact of our restaurant scene— and, in Marie Antoinette’s defense, even at least a little bit on the credit side of the food media which mostly cover the trivia and fripperies of a fashionable scene.

Should We Be Thinking About Hunger When We Talk About Food?