FREE TURKEY! screams the headline of the supermarket flyer from a nearby Fairfield county suburb. Spend $300 or $450 at that supermarket in the month before Thanksgiving and you'll receive a small or medium turkey, free. If you don't spend enough to get a free turkey, you can buy one for just 49 cents a pound - nearly free. Pasta, sugar and paper towels are also free.
A volunteer at a church food pantry in the north end of Hartford says "If we gave away turkeys, we'd have a riot." She had just finished handing out special bags of Thanksgiving food which included potatoes, cranberry sauce, and corn bread mix. This pantry normally provides a three days' supply of basic foodstuffs to needy families just once every three months. It regularly helps 900 families and is one of a great number of soup kitchens, pantries, and other dedicated volunteer efforts to feed those who would otherwise go hungry. Many recipients say they never thought they would find themselves visiting a food pantry. Often, half or more of their income goes to pay the rent.
Near the suburban supermarket which is giving away turkeys, another store sells a wide selection of dog and cat food scientifically formulated for the health of these animals. In contrast, in the cities, fat-laden fast-food outlets and small stores selling salty, sweet, and artifically colored and flavored foods in small plastic packages are the most convenient places for children to get a snack or a meal.
What's going on here?
We're doing a fantastic job of producing food in this country. There is such bounty that some of it is given away free in the suburbs. It costs so little that overconsumption of calories, saturated fat, salt, and low-fiber processed foods is linked to the three leading causes of death in the U.S.: heart disease, cancer and stroke. Too much of the wrong foods can also cause or aggravate diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis and obesity. The wrong kinds of foods are the ones most readily available in the suburbs and in the cities. They are the most profitable to produce and sell. These unhealthy foods take greatest advantage of vast agricultural and energy subsidies. They produce the greatest health costs and the most trash.
The growing number of hungry people face a rough future, however. Government funded and volunteer feeding programs currently serve more and more Americans including families, children, single moms, the elderly, the disabled, and the long-term unemployed. In the last six years, participation in Connecticut's food stamp program has grown 67 percent. Benefits which are based on low national average prices wind up being spent in very expensive urban stores. Yet, all indications from state and federal governments are that funding is going to decrease.
There are a lot of related issues that effect food availability. One of the most glaring is the lack of supermarkets, with their wide selection of free and low-priced food, in the cities. Poor public transportation to take urban dwellers to suburban markets is another problem. (There are ten large supermarkets, many of them very new, within ten miles of our rural farm, but nearly none in the big cities.) The lack of public transportation, and the nature of Connecticut's economy also affect the availability of jobs for the urban poor. Bill Collins has eloquently pointed out the greatly inflated tax and insurance costs of owning a car in Connecticut's cities. Apparently, big cuts in funding for public transportation are also on the way.
Connecticut farmers produce the fresh, fiber and vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables which build the health of all of us. Yet they are being pushed out of existence by suburban sprawl, large chain supermarkets and by subsidized farm production in other parts of this country and the world.
And the giant food distribution companies continue to gain tighter control, larger market share and a larger percentage of our food dollar.
What are we going to do and where do we begin?
Local food production should be at the center of our problem solving strategies. Urban and suburban small farms, school, community and home gardens all have enormous potential to improve the health of our communities and ourselves.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
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