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The Economy of Hunger

Missoula, Montana.

One of the many ironies of our time is that no news is strictly local. Corporate culture’s homogenization leaves me free to tell a quirky little story about my town and be fairly certain it is relevant in yours, even if yours is Palencia, Guatemala.

The poor, and therefore the hungry, have always been with us, so it would seem there is no news in this matter. Nonetheless, a group of well-meaning folks assembled itself recently in my town, Missoula, Montana, with the straightforward mission of eradicating hunger here.

One would think it to be an easy enough task. Missoula has a lively economy, affluence and a deep-seated progressive streak immune to the smear of red that has so stained the rest of the region. So in true progressive tradition, we saw this as simply a matter of rolling up our sleeves and getting on with it.

After all, most of us have seen the hungry, the shuffling homeless under the interstate bridges. There didn’t seem to be all that many of them, and they didn’t look as if they would eat all that much.

But the people who had been doing the actual work of collecting and distributing food to the poor for years in this town were quick to inform us that stereotypes are simply wrong.

It has become increasingly difficult to work at small-town food banks because often one knows the client not as a beggar from beneath the bridge, but as a neighbor or colleague. Food banks today cater increasingly — and a sociologist’s survey of our town bore this out — to people who are employed, the class we now call the working poor.

These people earn so little they barely get by. Catastrophic medical bills or Missoula’s escalating housing costs can chew up their inadequate paychecks so that by the end of the month there is no money left for food.

If we are to really do anything about the shameful matter of hunger in our town, we must address these larger issues. What at first looked like a little hole to plug now appears to be a bottomless chasm, ever widening.

There is something fundamental buried in all of this: where these people work. Many of them, report the food bank people, work full time for minimum wage and no health insurance at the ring of chain stores that has suburbanized this once unique mountain town. The big-box retail business has exploded in Missoula, making us a regional market center, part of the cause of our prosperity. That is, hunger is increasing in our town not in spite of our healthy economy, but because of it.

Hunger in America is no longer a matter of falling through the cracks, of happenstance and misfortune. Hunger has been institutionalized as a part of the economic fabric, including especially the business of selling food.

There is a mirror image that extends this story to the developing world. The New York Times recently reported, “Across Latin America, supermarket chains partly or wholly owned by global corporate goliaths like Ahold, Wal-Mart and Carrefour have revolutionized food distribution in the short span of a decade and have now begun to transform food growing too.”

Simply, small subsistence farmers are unable to sell to the chain stores because they cannot meet the stores’ conditions. At the same time the big companies are murdering the local markets that used to sell the farmers’ products.

“The stark danger is that increasing numbers of them will go bust and join streams of desperate migrants to America and the urban slums of their own countries,” the Times reported.

Look for some of them, coming soon to a food bank near you.

RICHARD MANNING is the author of several books, most recently Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization. He is a member of the Land Institute’s Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kansas.

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