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Alison Cayne Headshot

Why Does Cooking at Home Fight Hunger? * *And a Whole Lot of Other Problems?

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Sadly, we have a serious hunger problem in this country. I don't think that is debatable, given that over 16 million children in America go without food on a regular basis, often because their parents have to choose between paying rent and buying food. In New York City alone, the numbers are staggering: Homelessness, poverty and, hunger are by some measures at an all time high since the Great Depression. And while there has always been, and probably will always be inequality, the issue now is the extent of this inequality. Fortunately we live in a country that has traditionally cared for those who need help -- remember the "give me your tired your poor..." engraved on the Statue of Liberty?

SNAP (originally Food Stamps) was created to alleviate issues associated with hunger. And research shows clearly that it does just that: A Census Bureau report published in September shows that food stamps did indeed help to keep four million Americans out of poverty last year. SNAP and other programs like it have also been shown to stimulate the economy silencing critics who claimed they were a net cost.

Unfortunately, last month, the House of Representatives proposed to drastically cut SNAP benefits, which would impact 47 million hungry children and adults, and cut the amount of relief for those hungry families by $40 billion over the next decade. The Senate, fortunately, is considering a much milder cut; however, regardless of the outcome of the vote, on November 1st SNAP was cut by $5 billion, when the 2009 Recovery Act expired.

SNAP and the debate surrounding it frames the larger and fundamental ideological debate that is dividing our country: Do social programs work to help our country or do they promote a society of "dependency" and (harsh word, not mine) "laziness?"

I would argue that data proves the former. SNAP is not the fraud-ridden, free ride that some would say it is, and that the $80 billion the Federal Government alone spent feeding the hungry last year is not proof that people don't want to work. People cannot go out and find jobs that simply do not exist. Demand for SNAP benefits is proof that we are living in a time of long-term unemployment and a very deep recession. Moreover, (this is the piece I'm going to be figuratively yelling about for a while) we have a food system that artificially makes healthy, simple food more expensive than processed non-food. Maybe we cannot change macro economic problems our country faces, but we can fix our food system.

As the national debate continues, I would urge everyone who's reading this to vote with your fork, your dollars, and at the ballet box. I would also like to offer up some thoughts as to why the simple act of cooking at home is an act against this flawed system. I believe it is time to get active politically to change antiquated and misguided policies, but you can also show what you stand for by the way you eat, and cook.

Here are three problems with our food system and ways that cooking at home can help:

PROBLEM #1:
Farm subsidies could cost taxpayers $90 billion over the next 10 years.

The House proposed to cut SNAP payments to low-income families and veterans, the elderly and the unemployed by $40 billion. Ironically, at the same time, they proposed to increase payments to agribusiness by more than double that amount. Subsidies aren't helpful infusions of funds to bucolic farms trying to grow food (we could sure use those!). These are payments made to the wealthiest, largest farm businesses, regardless of need. Do those businesses grow food? Yes and no. They mostly grow corn for cattle feed, oil, car fuel, packaging and chemicals. But they also grow grain (a lot for animal feed), soy (need I say more?), and cotton (yum.).

WHY COOKING HELPS:
Buying practically anything store-bought supports the demand for the above commodities because it further promotes a food system of shelf-stabilized, processed and of course, fast food. We can create markets for Organic, "humanely raised" and other more sustainable food options by demanding them. The food industry wouldn't try so hard to prove that they "Use Real Potatoes!" if we weren't asking questions already.

Cooking at home requires fewer processed ingredients and ultimately, hopefully, less market-wide dependence on commodity food. Even better? Cook with local produce, meat and dairy, and support your regional farmers directly rather than paying for industrial food twice, first with your tax money, then by paying for chemical processing, shipping, freezing and more.

PROBLEM #2:
Our water supply is at risk, climate change is happening, and the health of our environment is declining rapidly.

WHY COOKING HELPS:
Industrial agriculture taxes the soil and overuses fossil fuels for fertilizer and pesticides. It creates health problems for livestock due to overcrowding and consequently overuses antibiotics, which CDC studies are showing are making humans resistant to their benefits. Industrial farming, and in particular industrial meat production, creates toxic runoff and heavy outputs of greenhouse gasses into the environment. Then, add in thousands of miles of air travel and you've got a system that uses more energy than it creates.

Studies show that "Without question, it takes less energy and resources to cook at home." Home cooking depends less on a fuel-intensive system than eating out, especially at fast food restaurants. Michael Pollan writes, "As long as we let corporations do most of our cooking for us, our agriculture will continue to be dominated by giant monocultures of grain and animal factories. Big companies only know how to buy from big farms." And the big farms are the most likely to be big polluters. From anecdotal research, people who cook more, care more about where their ingredients come from and are more in tune with the seasons. It's not a given that home cooks are focused on sustainable food sources, but its more likely.

PROBLEM #3:
American adults eat less than the USDA-recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables.

More than a third of the U.S. population is clinically obese, and the nation's health care costs are estimated to reach around $200 billion per year. The U.S. spends as great a percentage of our GDP on healthcare as some European welfare states, while at the same time caring for a much smaller percentage of the population. We clearly need to manage healthcare better, but why not attack the problem while we're figuring out the solution and prevent people from getting so sick in the first place?

WHY COOKING HELPS:
Studies suggest that people who eat at home are healthier. Primarily, this is due to the amount of fat, salt and sugar that goes into store-bought food. It also has to do with portion size and the amount of refined ingredients in processed food. By cooking from scratch, you control the type and amount of ingredient that goes into your meals. We will be a healthier country if we wean ourselves off of the sodas, fast food and processed non-food. And we can do that by cooking for ourselves.

SO HOW DOES COOKING HELP THE HUNGRY?
Obviously home cooking cannot resolve all of our nation's problems. And I'm not suggesting that anyone who is struggling to get food on the table that should start shopping at farmers markets. First and foremost, we need government to do the right, intelligent thing(s). We also need to put the debate into less reductive terms. We are not a "Socialist" country if we help our neediest. Nor are those people who genuinely believe that too many benefits enable dependency automatically evil right wing maniacs.

That being said, the cooking premise is pretty simple: More than one fifth of Americans live below the federal poverty line ($19,530 for a family of three). So whether they have zero or three jobs, they are not earning enough to adequately support their cost of living. A higher minimum wage would certainly help here. As would more jobs. But food is also critical to the picture.

As it is, processed, industrial food is cheaper and more available, so of course that's what families eat. That leads to malnutrition. And all of the other health and social ills associated with our food system.

If we, as consumers, support local economies and healthful food growers we can help to balance out an artificially out of whack system. Food businesses need to sell food so they will follow the trends determined by us, the consumers. If we demand more local vegetables, stores will stock them and the government will, perhaps, do more to help farmers. If we slow our consumption of commodity food, especially meat, policies will have to change. We can cook our way to a more equitable system.

Pollan puts it beautifully when he writes that learning to cook is, "the most important thing an ordinary person can do to help reform the American food system, to make it healthier and more sustainable" and to help "people living in a highly specialized consumer economy reduce their sense of dependence and achieve a greater degree of self-sufficiency." Ditto.

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