OPINION | There’s no place for hunger in Minnesota


Hunger at home should surprise us. Given just the smallest contemplation, hunger should provoke a simmering, disturbed outrage. Discovering hunger’s growing incidence mustn’t roll off our conscience as studied indifference, not in Minnesota and not in this day and age.

And yet, it seems, it does.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service released its annual report [PDF] on national food security. Besides a larger, country-wide result, USDA ERS researchers break out individual state findings. Food insecurity is up, both in the US and in Minnesota.

Last year, 2008, 17 million households, or 14.6 percent, were food insecure. Families had difficulty putting enough food on the table at times during the year. This is an increase from 13 million households, or 11.1 percent, in 2007. The 2008 figures represent the highest level observed since USDA’s food security surveys were initiated in 1995.

Minnesota’s numbers are slightly less dour. The 2006-2008 food insecurity average was 10.3 percent compared with the 2003-2005 average of 7.7 percent. That’s a 2.6 percent change.

Think hard about what this means. Food insecurity is a thoughtful, if somewhat antiseptic, term for fear of starving. USDA researchers aren’t hiding anything; they’re just trying to be dispassionately observational in their work.

USDA’s formal food insecurity definition is “the food intake of one or more household members was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food.”

Minnesota’s trend line should give us pause. More Minnesotans are worried about feeding their families than at any time since the survey launched. For the past six or seven years, we’ve been consistently worried about employment, rising healthcare costs and slipping education quality. Now, we learn that a growing number of Minnesotans are unable to consistently put food on the table.

One of every ten Minnesota families experienced food insecurity in 2008. I can’t imagine that 2009’s findings will be better. In fact, I expect another tick upwards given rising state unemployment rates.

Anecdotal evidence, skimmed from the retail food industry experiences, reinforces hunger’s rising primacy. Consumers are stretching their food dollars, demanding lower costs and greater value. Dried beans are moving while crudités sales plummet.

At one level, we shouldn’t be surprised. Food shelf demand has jumped in the last few years as families find themselves facing bare cupboards at the month’s third week. Food insecurity -hunger- has been coming on like a freight train, a logical consequence of financial overreach and community disregard. We’ve lost focus on what really matters.

Hunger creates social disruption, weakening community bonds. It turns us against each other, unraveling social fabric and undermining family networks.

Take a step back and consider the historical timeline. Food insecurity has grown during a period dominated by national and state conservative public policy dominance. Hunger’s growth is a consequence of a callous public policy framework that asserts the primacy of “no new taxes” above any other consideration.  Conservative policy priorities aren’t principled commitments to small government; they exist to preserve wealth’s advantage. It’s a brilliant disguise.

Beginning eighty years ago, the Great Depression created a broad, sustained public intersection with hunger and poverty. That experience dramatically increased popular support for an expanded social service safety net. The Depression generation, people like my grandparents, were so thoroughly and deeply scarred that, even in America’s unimaginably prosperous second half of the 20th century, they lived their lives braced for poverty’s return.

As I contemplate the rise in Minnesota’s and America’s food insecurity, I have to consider my grandfather’s warning admonition in a different light.  It was a regular drumbeat of my childhood. He’d say, “There’s going to be another depression in this country. Mark my words.” I used to think he was being dramatic. Now, I’m not so sure.

I know that we retain the capacity for change. Minnesota’s public policy framework can be altered, supporting rather than undermining families and communities. Minnesotans have repeatedly voted for change that invests in people, expands education and affordable healthcare, builds infrastructure, and embraces smart, long-term economic development. With the next legislative session just over the horizon, it’s time to move Minnesota forward. Reducing food insecurity is only the first step.