Mark Bittman on Fasting for Food Justice in Budget Cuts

March 29, 2011, 10:28 pm
Why We're Fasting

I stopped eating on Monday and joined around 4,000 other people in a fast to call attention to Congressional budget proposals that would make huge cuts in programs for the poor and hungry.

By doing so, I surprised myself; after all, I eat for a living. But the decision was easy after I spoke last week with David Beckmann, a reverend who is this year's World Food Prize laureate. Our conversation turned, as so many about food do these days, to the poor.

Who 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.

Beckmann, who is president of Bread for the World, made me want to join in just by talking about his commitment. For me, the fast is a way to demonstrate my interest in this fight, as well as a way to remind myself and others that there are bigger things in life than dinner. (Shocking, I know.) I expect I'll learn something about patience and fortitude while I'm at it. Thirty-six hours into the fast, my senses are heightened and everything feels a bit strange. Odors from the cafeteria a floor away drift down to my desk. In the elevator, I can smell a muffin; on the street, I can smell everything -- good and bad. But as hungry as I may get, we know I'll eat well soon. (Please check my blog for a progress report.)

Many poor people don't have that option, and Beckmann and his co-organizers are calling for God to create a "circle of protection" around them. Some are fasting for a day, many for longer. (I'm fasting until Friday, and Beckmann until Monday. And, no, it's not too late to join us.)

When I reminded Beckmann that poor people's hunger was hardly a new phenomenon, and that God hasn't made a confirmed appearance recently -- at least that I know of -- he suggested I read Isaiah 58, in which God says that if we were more generous while we fasted he'd treat us better. Maybe. But a billion people are just as hungry, human, and as deserving now as the Israelites were when they were fleeing Egypt, and I don't see any manna.

This isn't about skepticism, however; it's about ironies and outrages. In 2010, corporate profits grew at their fastest rate since 1950, and we set records in the number of Americans on food stamps. The richest 400 Americans have more wealth than half of all American households combined, the effective tax rate on the nation's richest people has fallen by about half in the last 20 years, and General Electric paid zero dollars in U.S. taxes on profits of more than $14 billion. Meanwhile, roughly 45 million Americans spend a third of their posttax income on food -- and still run out monthly -- and one in four kids goes to bed hungry at least some of the time.

It's those people whom Beckmann and his allies (more than 30 organizations are on board) are trying to protect. The coalition may be a bit too quick to support deficit reduction, essentially saying, "We understand the need for fiscal responsibility, but we don't want to sacrifice the powerless, nearly voiceless poor in its name. As Beckmann knows, however, deficit reduction isn't as important as keeping people from starving: "We shouldn't be reducing our meager efforts for poor people in order to reduce the deficit," he told me by phone. "They didn't get us into this, and starving them isn't going to get us out of it."

This is a moral issue; the budget is a moral document. We can take care of the deficit and rebuild our infrastructure and strengthen our safety net by reducing military spending and eliminating corporate subsidies and tax loopholes for the rich. Or we can sink further into debt and amoral individualism by demonizing and starving the poor. Which side are you on?

If faith increases your motivation, that's great, but I doubt God will intervene here. Instead, we need to gather and insist that our collective resources be used for our collective welfare, not for the wealthiest thousand or even million Americans but for a vast majority of us in the United States and, indeed, for citizens of the world who have difficulty making ends meet. Or feeding their kids.

Though Beckmann is too kind to say it, he and many other religious leaders believe that true worship can't take place without joining this struggle: "You can't have real religion," he told me, "unless you work for justice for hungry and poor people."

I don't think you can have much humanity, either.

Food Access Survey from DUAC

The Duluth Urban Acres Coalitionthat I facilitate is doing research towards designing a community food project to work around barriers that stand between low-income people in Duluth and food security. To this point, we've completed five focus groups with 34 participants, are in the process of doing 20 individual interviews, and have created an online survey that has collected 50 responses to date.

The goal of all of these research tools is to 1) collect demographic information on the respondants to contextualize their responses 2) characterize barriers that keep them from food security 3) test market some of the community food program ideas that the coalition has come up with to this point.

The goal of this online survey is to broaden our understanding of the food security of people of all incomes in Duluth beyond the limited sample sizes of the focus groups and individual interviews.

Consider filling it out anonymously-by following the link below, it's a useful exercise to think about where you get food and your own experience, and it helps us to broaden the sample we're taking in for our research.

What Are People For.jpgAs I re-read David Orr's piece, "What is Education For?", for today's seminar,I came across his quotation from Wendell Berry raising the question of whether four years of education at our university makes our graduates better planetary citizens or does it make them, in Wendell Berry's words, 'itinerant professional vandals?'

Brought me back to a time when I heard Berry speak years ago at a "sustainability exposition" (it wasn't called that as in 1994 sustainability didn't have the familiarity it does now) in Austin, Texas. Berry was eloquent, funny, angry and kind (he took a few minutes to talk to me in the hall outside the room where he spoke). I was an earnest graduate student and farm worker at the time, and he listened to me and complimented my desire both to work in agriculture and to write about place and its importance in culture.

Yesterday Berry received the National Humanities medal. Sometimes recognition comes for good work. Here's the article from a Kentucky (Berry's home state) newspaper.

Link to Access the Moveable Type Login

Here is the link to use if you would like to login to to your "dashboard" to create a new blog entry (not a comment on someone else's post):

Special Issue of The Economist on "Feeding the Masses"

One of my Anth Senior Seminar students, Kaela Blenkush, made this post to our class Moodle forum. The articles add to the global context of food that we spent some time discussing at our last session.

Thanks to Kaela for the following:
This week's Economist is "a special report on feeding the masses". The article below, "No Easy Fix," looks at the issue of converting virgin land to farmland, the current solutions to naturally-infertile soils, and obstacles facing farmers in developing countries. What effects would these farming practices have on their ecosystems in the long run? (For example, Brazil reducing the acidity of its soil in order to grow soyabeans.)

In the same issue is an article about calories vs. nutrition, and something called "biofortified crops." Is quantity enough, or is quality essential as well?

And another..."The only reliable way to produce more food is to use better technology."

"Food Networks: Gender and Foodways"
An Interdisciplinary Conference at the University of Notre Dame
Organized by the Gender Studies Program
January 26-29, 2012

This conference seeks to address gender issues as they relate to food. We welcome papers from all disciplines - Anthropology, Literary Studies, Film Studies, Sociology, Theology, Cultural Studies, Visual Culture, Gender Studies, Food Studies, American Studies, Ethnic Studies, History, Agriculture, and more. We seek a wide range of papers dealing with food in all its variety and complexity, as it relates to gender, sex, and sexuality. Possible topics and areas of interest include:

Gender and food figures : the gourmet chef, the housewife, the family, the writer, the food critic, Julia Child, Martha Stewart, Michael Pollan, Mark Bitman, Rachel Ray, Iron Chefs, Top Chefs, etc.

Gendered food spaces : The kitchen, the grocery store, the dining room, the farmers market, the café, the restaurant, etc.

Gendered representations of food : in literature, in film, in television, in magazines, in ephemera, in metaphor, etc.

Food and Gender/Sex Identities : queer food, feminist food, masculine food, food and family, food and singles culture, race and gender, national and transnational cultures, ethnic cultures

Gender and : eating, diets, starvation, foodies, localism, sustainability, cookbooks, fat, sexuality, gastro-porn, disgust, shame, pleasure, sensuality, food communities, slow food, raw food, cleansing, Weight Watchers, Whole Foods, fast food, calorie counting, lunch boxes, bento boxes, vegetarianism, veganism, hunger, nostalgia

Proposals should consist of a 200 word abstract of the paper, a list of three keywords , and a brief biographical statement listing your title, the name of your college or university, and your areas of research and writing. Please indicate technology needs , such as powerpoint or DVD. Proposals are due by 30 June, 2011

Preconstituted panels will not be considered.

Submit proposal electronically to

Questions can be addressed via email to: with subject header "Food Networks"

Food Insecurity at the Global Level

food insecurity.jpg
This image was in my presentation and I just took the time to think through what it was saying. The first graph shows the world population by what part of the world they live in, the second shows the food insecure population based on what part of the world they live in (mostly Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa) and the last shows the "food deficit" i.e. how much food needs to be added to the existing food supply in those regions to fully feed everyone.

Here is the link to the full report

Marcus Samuelsson article on Huff Post

I don't know too much about Marcus Samuelsson, besides the fact that he is one of those superstar chefs. This article on the Huffington Post "The Politics of Food: How U.S. Farm Policy Impacts People Worldwide" was excellent.

School Gardens: the Inevitable Polemics Against...


This month's Atlantic Monthly features an article called 'Cultivating Failure: How School Gardens are Cheating Our Most Vulnerable Students', written by Caitlin Flanagan.

The author is a witty polemicist at the New Yorker & Atlantic Monthly and is good at it: a lot of people seem to particularly hate her for her previous polemics -- on women, housewives, etc. Her subject here revolves around the demolition of the idea that school gardens have any real value for students, particularly poor students. For her, they are tantamount to setting kids up for failure because they substitute real learning --the kind kids need to get good scores on tests that will allow them upward mobility-- with gardening. In the end, as she puts it, "it will have created not a generation of gentleman farmers but one of intellectual sharecroppers, whose fortunes depend on the largesse or political whim of their educated peers."

The article might be worth reading for a variety of reasons in my opinion. For one, it will provoke your thinking to be sure. Secondly, these ideas are in the educational ether in various school districts strapped with 'teaching for tests' and remnants of the unfunded 'no child left behind' mandates.

Some responses might also be interesting. Check out one in Grist and another written by some smart college students in the blog New Clear Vision.

Undoubtedly this article and its critiques will make their rounds!

Indian Fry Bread as Cultural/Historical Artifact

In the seminar last week, we used the changing nature of bread to illustrate the meaning of the broad term "food system". The industrialization of food did not take place in a social or cultural vacuum. Instead it occurred as the result of a concurrence of many forces and events. Indian fry bread is another example of history and culture inextricably mixed into our food.

Fry bread is a pan-American Indian cultural food, but it is not a traditional food of American Indian cultures. Wheat, introduced to the Americas by Europeans, was not part of traditional diets which included such foods as fish, elk, buffalo, corn, beans, squash, berries. The origins of fry bread, instead, are found in the Indian removal efforts of the US government in the mid-19th Century. One such effort resulted in the "Long Walk", in which thousands of Navajo were forced to make the 300 mile trek to Fort Sumner at Bosque Redondo in New Mexico in 1863-1864. Some 9000 people were imprisoned at Fort Sumner for four years. At Fort Sumner, survival depended on meager rations, including lard and white flour. It was under these conditions that the inhabitants of Fort Sumner mixed the rations and fried them in lard to produce what has become an icon of American Indian food, fry bread. This important food at tribal and family gatherings thus embodies the traumatic narrative of 19th Century Indian history in the US. Fry bread now is at the center of debate about its symbolic, unifying value and its role in the rising incidence of obesity and diabetes among American Indians.
If you have similar examples or any comments on food systems in general, we invite you to blog!

Sources for more information:

Diet and physical activity patterns of Lakota Indian adults. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 99.7 (July 1999): p829(7).

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