09/23/2013 09:27 pm ET

Poet Slams Inequality In Light Of Food Stamp Cuts (VIDEO)

The Commonwealth Club and The Huffington Post San Francisco present "Commonwealth Club Thought Leaders," an ongoing series of insights from the most interesting people in the San Francisco Bay Area. Read the summary below and watch the video above--then share your thoughts.

By Mehroz Baig

Twenty-two-year-old Joshua Merchant from Youth Speaks took the stage at The Commonwealth Club to perform a piece on food and inequality. Through the story of eight-year-old James, Merchant took the audience on a journey connecting food, poverty and violence and demonstrated the personal impact that food choices have on children in our society.

Food insecurity is an important concern. According to a survey published in September, 2013 by the United States Department of Agriculture, in 2012, 17.9 million households in the United States were food insecure. The USDA defines food insecurity as any household that does not “have consistent, dependable access to enough food for active, healthy living.”

The report also noted that 3.9 million households had children who were affected by food insecurity, meaning that these households “were unable at times during the year to provide adequate, nutritious food for their children.”

Unsurprisingly, the report found that “rates of food insecurity were substantially higher than the national average for households with incomes near or below the federal poverty line, households with children headed by single women or single men, and Black and Hispanic households.” Geography also provides an added layer of nuance, as food insecurity is more common in large cities and rural areas.

Interestingly, the report also points out that “59 percent of food-insecure households in the survey reported that in the previous month, they had participated in one or more of the three largest federal food and nutrition assistance programs.” This is especially pertinent in light of a bill passed last week that cuts $40 billion over the next 10 years from the food stamp program.

A report from UCLA’s Center for Health Policy Research found disparities among California counties in impact from food insecurity. In looking at data for households with income at less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, the report found a variety of counties, geographically dispersed, with more than 40 percent of their populations affected by food insecurity. These counties were Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, Monterey, Kings, San Benito, Merced, Fresno, Alameda, Contra Costa, Sacramento, Sutter, Yuba, Butte, Shasta and, in the heart of wine country, Napa and Sonoma.

Food insecurity is not only a pricing concern, but also one of food accessibility and quality. A senior thesis by Lisa Fleming from UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources found that fresh produce was most accessible in low-income, urban areas. (The study looked at percent of households within a quarter mile of a vendor who sold fresh produce.) The study also found that low-income, urban neighborhoods had access to lower priced fresh produce compared to their higher-income, suburban counterparts. Along with that, however, was the finding that lower-income, urban neighborhoods also had lower variety in produce available and lower quality of produce available.

The paper suggests that addressing food security simply by looking at socioeconomic levels is not enough, at least in San Francisco. Each locality facing food insecurity presents its own unique circumstances: whether the populations reside in urban or rural areas, the availability of food sources, geographic locations and weather patterns, community development with regard to local food sources, among others. And those aspects are best taken into account at the local level: federal and state programs are structured on too broad a basis to adequately address the local needs.

Listen to Joshua Merchant’s performance above and share your thoughts with us below.



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