Not just food, but healthy food.
Food access is a right. That one has been with us since 1948, the result of the experience of the Second World War. Vowing that the world would never again see such suffering, the international community created the United Nations and drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Among the various protections, guarantees, and liberties is the individual’s right to food.
Who knew from empty calories back then?
Nobody thought to specify the type of food. In 1948, the Big Mac was just a gleam in Roy Kroc’s eye, and the Colonel had yet to fry his first chicken. Who could have imagined a time when nutrition would be so divorced from food that malnutrition could go hand-in-hand with obesity?
This is the paradox of modern-day poverty.
It’s like the line in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
Millions of Americans are adrift in a sea of junk food. They are swimming in abundance but can’t get a decent meal. They live in our largest and wealthiest cities like Chicago and Los Angeles where stores stand empty in the grittier, inner city neighborhoods, abandoned by retailers to the surrounding poverty and urban decay. They even live in places like central Nebraska and California’s San Joaquin Valley—some of the world’s most prolific agricultural regions—where it takes a car and a tank of gas to find a head of lettuce and fresh meat.
These are the nation’s so-called ‘food deserts’— low-income urban and rural communities where there are plenty of processed foods at convenience stores and fast food outlets but limited access to full-service supermarkets, and nearly 25 million Americans live in this landscape.
Is access to high quality food a basic human right?
The Obama Administration thinks so. In June, the Senate included a Healthy Food Financing Initiative when it passed its version of the 2012 farm bill. The HFFI provides seed money for local collaborations between lenders and investors, philanthropic entities, grocers, food coöps, and farmers markets. It’s based on a handful of highly successful state programs, most notably Pennsylvania’s Fresh Foods initiative that leveraged a small public investment into a half a billion dollars in private investment that has brought 88 food markets to needy areas, creating and preserving 5,000 local jobs in the process.
Obama’s HFFI is a tiny little thing of just $32 million to cover all 50 states for 2012, but its future is uncertain. After bi-partisan passage in the Senate and House Agricultural Committee, the farm bill spent the summer in limbo, stalled in the Paul Ryan-chaired House Budget Committee. The clock is ticking, with the initiative set to expire on September 30th.
Congress will need to address the farm bill when its members return from their month-long recess next week.
You can track the bill’s progress, and see if the HFFI remains in the House’s version, through the non-partisan public resource OpenCongress.org. And if you believe that access to high quality food should be a basic human right, the Open Congress website has a one-click link to email your Representative.
Find out where they are: the Economic Research Service of the USDA created a Food Desert Locator based on census tract-level data.