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Stamping Out Hunger

Photo by osseous | CC BY 2.0

I lived in the woods north of Santa Cruz, CA. for part of the summer in 1978.  The rest of those five or six months (it was California) I either lived on the beaches north of the town or was on the road.  Living was cheap and living was easy.  Mostly, my friends and I had to stay a couple steps ahead of the cops and away from the straight and rich white folks.  We weren’t alone in that.  I lived off of fifty bucks worth of food stamps per month and money I made doing odd jobs.  Back then it was very easy to get those stamps.  One just had to show up at the food stamp office with some kind of identification, fill out some forms, talk to a worker and wait a couple hours.  Then, a clerk called your name, had you sign a paper and gave you the stamps.  It wasn’t socialism, it wasn’t fraud, it wasn’t government largesse; it was just a different understanding of government responsibility.

Then it was off to the grocery store and then back to the camp in the woods or on the beach.  Since fifty dollars didn’t really cover a person’s food costs even then (and even though we ate lots of beans, rice, cheese and potatoes), we usually pooled our resources with other folks living in the encampments, conjuring up some dandy meals of the aforementioned foods.  Spices can work wonders, as any cook knows.

The stamps were portable, so when I was on the road I could buy bread and lunch meat for sandwiches to gnaw on while I waited at some exit ramp anywhere in the USA.  The only town I was ever in where food stamps were not viable tender was Vail, CO.  My traveling companions and I tried four different grocers in the town with no success.  Finally, a friendly clerk in the fourth store told us that there were no stores in the town that took food stamps.  They also told us it was intended to keep poor people and hippies out of the town.  Let me tell you, after being told this by the clerk and then being rousted by three carloads of cops, it was clear the combination of tactics worked quite well.  I have never been back to that bourgeois burg.  Hell, even if I became a millionaire, Vail wouldn’t get my cash.  I felt fortunate that the cops gave us a day to leave town instead of throwing the bunch of us in jail.

As the post-Vietnam recession deepened the stamps began to get harder to obtain, even though it was the Pentagon that was trashing the economy, not the folks buying food with food stamps.  When Ronald Reagan and his coven of crooks took over the White House, it became exponentially more difficult to get food stamps.  I was working more regularly and made too much money to get them, even though I barely made 3000 dollars a year.  Instead, when friends would go to Social Services for food assistance, most of them would get vouchers for what were essentially food items that the government bought from big farmers to maintain price levels–a subsidy to big business.  The five pound blocks of cheese that were always part of this deal became known as Reagan Cheese.  One could only eat so much of this substance before their intestines became bound as if they were eating carpenter’s glue by the gallon.  The other foods were often of a lower grade than what was sold in stores.  Since it was only poor people getting the goods, the White House and most of Congress did not care.  Nor did much of the US population.  Government food assistance for hungry US residents had been stigmatized by the right wing since its inception.  In the 1980s during Reagan’s reign that stigmatization was closely identified with North Carolina senator Jesse Helms—a white supremacist, anti-women homophobe who saw communists behind every liberal.  Helms was a vociferous opponent of the food stamp program and other social welfare and did his best to destroy those programs.  Despite his best efforts he didn’t destroy them but did diminish their ability to lift people from poverty.

As head of the Senate Agriculture Committee Helms made a series of proposals concerning the program, including a work requirement, a forty percent cut and a reduction to families whose children got a free lunch at school.  Although there was not an immediate forty percent cut, the push to cut the program has continued, with success under both Republican and Democratic administrations.  Furthermore, the  workfare requirement has not gone away nor has the drive to end the program entirely.

This brings us to the current moment.  The most recent cuts to the food stamp program (now known as SNAP) took place while Obama was in office.  The cuts were the result of an all too typical legislative compromise that traded the hunger of the US poor for some benefits to the capitalist class that Congress owes its individual riches to.  The compromise was sold to the Democrats and their supporters in a manner that implied that some hungry people in the USA deserved to be hungry and were going to get hungrier.  As the brief history summarized above makes clear, these Obama-era cuts were merely the latest in a long term campaign to end the program entirely.

Under Trump, that end may well take place.  In its place would be a program that involved the government providing certain food commodities to those deemed worthy by and increasingly hateful bureaucracy.  A similar program currently exists in several US states and on most “Indian reservations.”  That program is called the Commodity Supplemental Food Program.  Its offerings are a laundry list of what are considered basic food in the US diet.  The corporations that sell most of the food to the government are the top names in the world of agribusiness. The average dollar amount spent on each participant is just under 75 dollars per year.  Anyone who has ever received a food box from a food bank has probably received some of these foodstuffs.

If this attempt to end the SNAP program is successful, hunger will almost certainly intensify in the United States.  Churches and other nonprofits involved in charity work will see their programs overwhelmed and falling short.  No god or saints will be able to provide for the greater need likely to be created.  Grocery stores that depend on SNAP purchases for a fair amount of their income will suffer financially, possibly leaving many communities in the United States without a supermarket.  If this program does replace SNAP, the meals provided will not be quasi-gourmet like those Blue Apron sells.  Instead, they will be the leftovers from the rich person’s table.

Bob Marley once sang “A hungry mob is an angry mob.”  One can only hope.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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