In the field of economics, there’s a saying that goes something like “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”, commonly abbreviated TINSTAAFL. Regardless of how communist, socialist, or capitalist an economy may be, the statement is true. You will never be able to get something for nothing, and if you are given something for nothing, the person that gave you something had to work for it. In the highly-specific TINSTAAFL case, lunch may not be an extravagant meal but, work is required to make any lunch (turning grain into bread, processing turkey from the bird to the lunch meat, etc…). In any economy, the lunch has to be paid for with money, whether it be the government’s or your own. Nonetheless, we all need our lunch (food) to survive.
The problem of hunger plagues every country, but this week I’ll focus on hunger in America. In my eyes, America is the country most capable of solving its hunger problems almost instantaneously, being prevented only by policy decisions. In 2019, 35 million Americans faced some food insecurity, and it only got worse in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hunger in America is directly correlated to low wages (covered partially in the March minimum wage article), increasing wealth inequality, and the pitfalls of capitalism. Hunger can, for the most part, be eradicated tomorrow with policy. It probably won’t be because doing so would garnish the income of the upper class and give the working-class social and economic leverage.
It isn’t hard to see why hunger and wages are inversely correlated. Low wages mean individuals have less buying power as consumers and less buying power means food becomes proportionally more expensive. Despite food being less affordable overall, healthy food is near an impossibility for individuals/families near or below the poverty line. Think about the foods you know as struggle meals versus what you would eat if you were trying to lose weight or train for a marathon. Other than maybe rice and beans, the most nutrient-dense foods are far more expensive than cheaper, filling foods like pancakes or sodium-rich ramens. Eating well-balanced meals isn’t impossible on a budget, but it gets a lot easier with a higher income.
Part of why some foods are more affordable than others is the profit motive presented by capitalist economies. Foodprint.org, which separates food loss from food waste, defines food loss as edible food discarded at any point along the supply chain. Foodprint’s estimate for food loss before food even leaves farms is around 20 billion pounds per year! While farms account for far more food loss than fisheries, manufacturers, packing plants, and restaurants, total food loss is over 50 billion lbs annually. Those 50 billion lbs would yield just under 4 lbs of food per food insecure person per day.
Food overproduction is a big reason why food loss numbers are so high. In a capitalist sense, overproduction refers to the amount of food exceeding consumer demand at a price. With 1 in 10 Americans going hungry, overproduction is not the problem; accessibility is. The federal government actively buys as much surplus food as program budgets allow, but continuous defunding means the government can’t buy and distribute enough to feed everyone. Rather than giving food away, many farmers destroy or let their produce rot as instructed by the companies that contract and control them. In these cases, the corporate profit motive creates the problem of overproduction out of thin air and sweeps distribution under the rug.
While farmers who operate at the will of companies aren’t the ones to blame for produce going to waste, restaurants, schools, and hospitals are on the hook for their share. The same foodprint.org source attributes 29–44 billion pounds of food waste to these institutions annually. Institutional food waste is significantly worse because food has already been produced and distributed, yet it still gets tossed in the same communities where food-insecure people live. While smaller mom-and-pop restaurants are better at donating unused food, chain restaurants and fast food joints are notorious for throwing unordered food away at the end of each day/shift.
From a business perspective, the food waste policy makes sense, but it prioritizes marginal profits over community health. When food gets donated at the end of a day or shift, taking inventory of products becomes a lot harder, increasing the risk of theft by employees who come in contact with the food from delivery to when it gets served. I understand the want to minimize theft, but when food gets thrown away, it is far more beneficial if it gets stolen and eaten than fed to a trash can. Such waste happens all the time in places whose primary operation isn’t food, like hospitals and schools.
As of now, there are two approaches to solving hunger: mutual aid and policy. Mutual aid is far more prominent today through food pantries, community fridges, and similar projects. Mutual aid is run cooperatively in communities and often uses schools, houses of worship, or other integral sites as a place for all donations to be held and accessible for the needy. Restaurants that donate uneaten food, grocers and farmers donating surpluses, and individuals giving from their pantries all consist of mutual aid. While all mutual aid projects rely on voluntary donations, the “Take what you need and give what you can.” philosophy works for those who rely on them.
Policy solutions to hunger are harder to come by and are usually more inadequate than mutual aid. Food Stamps and Special Supplemental Nutrition Programs subsidize consumer purchases of food through government programs. These programs fall short more often than not because the means tests they use are never perfect and they still subject the consumer to the mercilessness of the marketplace where they may still fall short of being able to afford everything they need. Though policy solutions fall short of meeting the needs of hungry individuals, Food Stamps and SSNP are always available and don’t rely on goodwill for their sustenance.