Politics and Food: The Personal is Political

Kate, the fine author of one of my daily must-reads, The Accidental Hedonist, recently posted a link to a column by Mark Morford decrying the “food” and atmosphere that is found in the typical gigantic American supermarket. A reader responded with this quote: “What does republican have to do with this rant – albeit his point is an excellent one, why politicize it? The dems have taken lots of money from the Safeway/Vons/Albertsons of the world. Starbucks – the Safeway of the coffee industry – is all Dem. So not sure why you have to politicize this. Get over it.”

Kate’s thoughtful response links to another blog, which is all about US governmental food policy, written by Parke Wilde, a food economist.

My response, which is hopefully just as thoughtful, though it is also ironic is this:

Food is already politicized. The personal is political. If you don’t like that stop eating. If you don’t like what a blogger has to say about it, don’t read that blog entry. (Notice I did not say “stop reading,” though it was tempting as it would have had parallel sentence construction going, and I do like the elegance of that. However, I would never, ever, under any circumstances advocate that any being of any sort stop reading.)

And just to sort of top off my food and politics theme yesterday, Zak sent me a link to an article stating that the US Government, (at the recommendation of The National Acadamy of Sciences) might be changing the rules on how WIC operates in order to bring it closer to modern healthy nutritional guidelines.

What is WIC?

The acronym stands for Women, Infants and Children; it is a governmentally funded voucher program with which low income mothers can obtain nutritious food for themselves (particularly if they are nursing mothers), their babies and toddlers. Vouchers are provided for milk, juice, baby formula, eggs, cheese, cereals and dried beans. The proposed changes will provide vouchers for fresh fruits and vegetables–nutritionally superior foods which few low income families can afford–while also allowing for various calcium-rich foods such as yogurt, tofu and soy beverages to be purchased instead of whole milk. The new guidelines would also provide for the consumption of less cholesterol in the form of dairy products and eggs, in an effort to curb rising obesity rates among children.

The number of children who are touched by WIC is incredible. For a program that costs a bit over five billion dollars a year, it feeds over 8 million human beings in our country, most of them children. One half of all infants in our country and one quarter of all kids between the ages of one to four years are fed in part, through the WIC voucher system.

Any person with empathy can see how important this program is to low-income families with kids. But just in case a reader doesn’t get it, let me make this bunch of political statistics personal:

Fourteen years ago, my daughter was one of those kids.

Nearly sixteen years ago, when I was pregnant with her, my husband lost his job, and I was unemployed and unemployable, in part, because minimum wage employers don’t like to hire a visibly pregnant woman. (Of course, they didn’t say that when they didn’t hire me, that would be discrimination, but the truth was they didn’t want to hire me and then lose me in six months when I gave birth, or even worse than that, have me get injured on the job and then sue them.)

With no income coming in and the savings account gone, we definately qualified as “low income.”

It killed me to accept charity. But my mother-in-law rightly pointed out that I had been working and paying taxes since I was seventeen, and one of the things my tax dollars paid for was helping to take care of those who were the most vulnerable in our society–pregnant women, babies and toddlers. So, I signed up for WIC, and ended up on medical assistance for my baby’s birth. I actually got very good medical care, but I learned quite quickly, how badly some women who use WIC vouchers or food stamps can get treated.

I also learned how nicely some of those women can get treated. I discovered that race matters when you are poor–grocery store clerks tended to be nicer to me than they were to black women using the exact same vouchers. I discovered that how you dress matters–I still dressed nicely, and looked more “middle-class,” and saw that white women who were not dressed as well as I was tended to get treated badly by store clerks.

I also learned that the taxes that I pay every year go towards something that matters more than Homeland Security.

It goes toward helping ensure that mothers and children have a chance at being healthy.

So, when I read that article yesterday, I was happy to know that the WIC guidelines were going to change and grow with our nutritional understanding which has amassed over the past thirty years.

However, something niggled in the back of my mind and worried me, and for a few minutes, I couldn’t figure out what it was.

And then I remembered.

The budget.

Under President Bush’s new proposed budget, WIC is going to undergo drastic cutbacks.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that the 2006 federal budget proposed by President Bush, targets WIC and other programs which are aimed at low income mothers and children for drastic cuts by 2010. For example, projected cuts to WIC show that by 2010, 670,000 fewer women and children will be able to be served by the program.

Yet, the US Census Bureau reports that the number of children under 18 who are in poverty is rising: from 2002-2003, the percentage of children in poverty rose from 16.7 percent to 17.6 percent.

Those 670,000 children are not faceless, nameless statistics. They are babies just like my daughter was. They are people. And they deserve to be fed.

It is very well that WIC’s policy on what constitutes nutritious food may be changing to reflect changing nutritional guidelines, but without a budget, what good will this do? If there is no money to feed these children, what does it matter? Is this what compassionate conservatism is about?

The political is personal, and food and nutrition are political issues.

And it behooves those of us who care about food, who can write passionately and eloquently about the seductive flavor of a truffle, or the joy of baking a loaf of bread, to be educated about how our food is affected by governmental policy. It behooves us to not only speak to the needs of the wealthy few who can afford truffles, but also to write about the plight of those whose hunger is for nothing more exotic than a full belly and a hope for the future of their children.

The personal is political, and the political is personal. Don’t ever forget that.

My daughter and millions of others like her will thank you for remembering.


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  1. I read the Morford article, and my problem with it was that it was just another article berating working people as being “lazy” because they do not have time to research farmer’s markets, or cut up vegetables, after working a 45-50 hour work week that would be considered unacceptable in Europe or Japan, either because they have too much else to do with their families or they’d like to do something that they actually enjoy. One of the top ten reasons that the neoconservative message is eagerly swallowed by working people in America is that it doesn’t call them names because they’re lazy and tired and don’t want to do research–it just takes advantage of that fact.

    Comment by Azalais Malfoy — April 28, 2005 #

  2. Actually, I didn’t see him make fun of any working people. Nor did he call people lazy. In fact, the message mostly had to do with American consumer culture and the plethora of new food products that most people do not really need. Like, who really needs blue or green ketchup?

    The food marketing budgets that target kids via television ads are staggering. And the food that is marketed towards kids is not healthy–and while he didn’t speak specifically to this topic, the subtext is there. I mean, who else would want blue ketchup but a kid who saw it on television?

    This may reveal our respective biases, Kiri–I have always been way more left-leaning than you, though I do remember you as being more left-leaning in the past than you seem to be at present. I don’t see anyone being berated in the article–you do. I see an industry being targeted, you see people being attacked.

    As for why a lot of working Americans have swallowed the neoconservative agenda hook, line and sinker–it has a lot more to do with religious propoganda and political spin than it has to do with liberals calling anyone names.

    I come from a working class to impoverished background, as well you know, so I am not talking out of my bum here. What I see when I go back to West Virginia, is a lot of people misled by the government, misled from their pulpits and totally biased against a so-called “liberal media” that so far, I have yet to see much evidence of except where some few remaining big city daily newspapers are concerned.

    But there are at least two things that I am pretty sure both you and I can agree on–that is that WIC provides a needed service to the most vulnerable of the impoverished in our nation, and that the neo-conservative message is neither compassionate nor conservative.

    It is radical, and because of that, I am seeing more and more -real- conservatives (such as yourself and a lot of mainline Christian leaders, for example) adding their voices to the centrists, moderates and liberals who decry the neo-con movement as something that goes against the interests and needs of the American people.

    So, now that we are clear on what you think of Morford, what did you think of my points?

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — April 28, 2005 #

  3. If Bush wants to cut back a budget on a project like that to deal with the present deficit, I say instead HIS pay should be docked. The same goes for congress. Maybe I’m being all old-fashioned and stuff thinking that those sorts of things should go back to volunteer positions (aren’t most politicians rich anyway? Anymore I thought you had to be to even manage the kind of campaigns that go on now), but really, think of how much tax money that would free up to use for more important things. I’ll admit I’m a little ignorant about politics in general, but my parents have mentioned something similar (funny, that… they’re conservative yet I am technically liberal, and we agree on many things politically – there’s the thing my Grandpa refuses to understand: my brand of liberal does not say more taxes for more programs, it’s use the existing taxes more sensibly).

    I’ll have to actually read the article later (blind commenting, I know, I should be smacked upside the head for that)… may comment again after that.

    On an unrelated note, Bryian has told me that I need to meet you, and that your food does, in fact, taste as good as it looks. So I suppose he was saying I need to meet you AND your food someday…

    Comment by Karyl — April 29, 2005 #

  4. I agree that WIC is an excellent program, and am saddened to hear Bush et al are gutting our safety nets even further. Between increasing liability insurance rates, making bankruptcy more difficult, and welfare assistance virtually impossible to qualify for, the eligible poor will have to turn increasingly to any remaining generous private sector. Assuming there’s much left – too many of the philanthropists are donating to old established charities whose administrations suck up the bulk of the donations, with only a small amount trickling through to those in need. That’s why I support, where possible, those small businesses and groups that have their “giving circles” – small charities dedicated to a single purpose or a specific segment of society. The “giving circle” model is the one we’ll use for the homeless resource center when we open the bakery.

    Comment by Noddy — April 29, 2005 #

  5. When I lived in Very-Northern New York (Appalachia with snow) and worked in human health care, I was radicalized by being exposed to the terible grinding hopeless poverty that poor women and children live in. And, on the other side, having to listen to the not-poor try to excuse the failings of the social support system by pointing to the (slight) abuses of the system as justification for witholding or diminishing it. The fact that some people illegally trade their milk and orange juice chits for cigarettes does not in any way obviate children’s need for milk and orange juice.

    I was too saddened and disheartened to try to do anything about it other than emigrate and pay my taxes to a more enlightened country. I couldn’t even convince poor people to eat the gov’ment rice–how could I make the tax-payers see the necessity of educating and supporting those same people?

    *sends well-wishing, however*

    Comment by wwjudith — April 29, 2005 #

  6. Hi, Karyl!

    Nice to talk with you. Are you a SCA person? If so, I am sure I will meet you eventually, and yes, you will probably meet my food eventually as well.

    The use of existing taxes could easily be tightened–abolishing a lot of corporate welfare programs for big business would be a start. Keeping a strong eye and insisting on accountability for huge corporate contractors like Halliburton would also be a nice thing we could do to cut some of the fat out of the budget.

    Social programs targeted at impoverished citizens and the uninsured is not “fat.”

    Money thrown at corporate interests is.

    Hey, Noddy–

    I agree that there are plenty of private charities out there, and a lot of them do good work. And you are right–a lot of the big ones do good work, but at a price.

    Sometime, we need to sit and talk about setting up a charity; I think it is something I need to know more about, and I think you know more about it than I do.


    You are absolutely right that punishing the needful majority because of the illegal antics of the minority is not the way to go about “reforming” welfare.

    There are other ways. They just are not being pursued.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — April 30, 2005 #

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