Today's post is by Nan McCurdy. McCurdy is a Global Ministries missionary of the United Methodist Church in the state of Puebla, Mexico with Give Ye Them to Eat (GYTTE), a ministry with impoverished rural people that works in community-based health, sustainable agriculture, church and faith development, community development specializing in appropriate technologies and also with mission delegations from the US and Mexico called AWARE – Alternative Work-Study and Reality Experiences. Nan is also the editor of the weekly on Nicaragua, NicaNotes. This post is part of an occasional series on food and mission.
US congregations take Jesus’ words and actions seriously: in 2018, 48% of churches had their own food ministry or supported efforts run by other churches or organizations such as food pantries or food banks. These faith-based ministries often provide immediate help to hungry people with no requirements, unlike government programs. And more than two million people volunteer at a food pantry, soup kitchen, emergency shelter or after-school program in the US, working more than 100 million volunteer hours a year, according to “Hunger in America 2014,” a study conducted by Feeding America.
This wave of charity recognizes a serious problem in the United States: despite being a wealthy nation, food insecurity remains high. One in four people in our nation, the richest nation on earth, do not have adequate access to sufficient nutritious food needed for a healthy life.
In the US, the average percentage of households with food insecurity stayed between 10 and 15% from 1995 until 2020, when the numbers shot up. Despite volunteer and government food aid, hunger grew 9% from 2019 to 2020, when 38 million people were hungry.
In research by the Census Bureau in the week before Christmas 2021, 81 million people experienced food insecurity, and 45 million reported not having enough food. Families with children suffered most: the rate of hunger has been 41% to 83% higher for households with children than adult-only ones.
Twice as many Black households experience hunger than white households. During the pandemic, 19 to 29% of Black homes with children have reported not having enough to eat; 16 to 25% of Latino homes and 7 to 14% of white homes reported the same. 43% of Black households with children have experienced food insecurity during the pandemic – the highest rate in recorded history.
In the face of this pervasive food insecurity, Americans turn to a variety of sources for help.
More than 42 million people rely on SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. During Covid, the USDA increased the purchasing power of the plan by 21% for the first time since 1975. There were also emergency allotments that increased the amount of food stamps people got.
In 2019, 35 million people relied on food charity. Undocumented immigrants are more dependent on food pantries because they are excluded from government programs. Church-related food programs make a big difference for these people’s lives, especially for their children.
80% of households receiving food stamps had at least one worker, which indicates that millions of people do not earn a living wage.
US-Related International Food Insecurity
Hunger issues in the United States are connected to hunger issues elsewhere. US foreign policy has had a major effect on hunger and nutrition in developing nations for many years. US agricultural policy aggressively promotes creating markets for our farmers by promoting
international reliance on US food exports.
The US subsidizes its own farmers to the point that products like corn and rice are actually sold below what would be the real price. In this way, we put small and medium-scale corn and rice producers out of business in developing nations. Most small farmers end up having to sell their land, leading to more large export-based farms – many now owned by US corporations.
Small and medium-scale farmers plant the food that local people eat like corn, beans, rice, vegetables, fruit, and they also raise farm animals in a much healthier way than corporations. But US policies have contributed to concentrating that land into the hands of large landowners and corporations. The US influences national policies so that it is very difficult for small and medium-scale farmers to get loans or any other kind of government assistance.
US loan policies are never aimed at the food security of the population of developing nations; instead, they promote production and export of products such as bananas, sugar, and coffee to the point that many developing nations are producing and exporting the same things. Thus, the international price stays artificially low which benefits people in wealthy nations, while people in developing countries benefit little from these exports. This whole process also leads to much more migration out of these countries.
An Example of Food Sovereignty for the United States and Other Nations
The small nation of Nicaragua in Central America has worked on ending poverty for the last fifteen years. One of the most important strategies has been to develop food security, and today they have reached approximately 90% food security.
This means that small and medium-scale farmers are producing 90% of the food that Nicaraguans eat. Their population is much more food secure in times of crisis, whether it be a climate-related crisis or a political crisis. There are no factory farms of cattle, pigs or chickens. There are large and corporate producers of export crops like sugarcane; but even coffee production for export is held more in the hands of small and medium-scale producers.
They had a major land reform in the 1980s that put land in the hands of nearly a million people. During three governments by and for the wealthy from 1990 to early 2007, much of that land returned to the wealthy. But government policies are helping poorer people legalize land for free, receive technical assistance and low-interest loans, and little by little more land is returning to small farm families.
Because of current Nicaragua policies that benefit the people instead of US corporations, the US has been doing many things to destabilize Nicaragua politically and even directed and financed a coup attempt in 2018. Although it didn’t fly, it cost the economy billions of dollars, and the US continues to try to destroy the excellent example Nicaragua is giving to the world. Just visit Nicaragua and you will see that another world is possible and that we could be employing similar food sovereignty policies in the US.
Corporate Profits Limit Food Security and Health in the United States
The Nicaraguan example requires envisioning agriculture beyond corporate monoculture. Monoculture production of grains on a large scale is not good for the land and requires enormous amounts of fertilizers and pesticides. Whereas sustainable farming practices control weeds, insects, and other pests with ecosystem management, farmers who monocrop are dependent on pesticides. Pesticides are linked to multiple health problems, including neurological and hormonal disorders, birth defects, cancer and other diseases.
Production of cattle, pigs, and chickens on a corporate scale is terrible for the environment, and there are many cases of water sources being polluted. Bacteria, viruses and nitrates can enter the supply; the community can be exposed to disease and nitrate poisoning. Nitrate poisoning is dangerous to infants, can lead to birth defects and miscarriages, and has been associated with esophageal and stomach cancers.
The volume of animal waste produced on factory farms is much greater than that of human waste. Animal waste is often stored in lagoons and applied, untreated, as fertilizer to farm fields. That excrement has pathogens such as E.coli residues
of antibiotics, animal blood, bedding waste, cleaning solutions and other chemicals. Manure pit gases with hydrogen sulfide, ammonia and methane fill the air.
There is great overuse of antibiotics on factory farms – 80% of antibiotics sold in the world today are for corporate farming. Antibiotic overuse leads to the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria. These bacteria can jump to humans, causing pandemics. Pandemics are also associated with viral mutations promoted by crowding of animals in very small spaces.
In the United States, along with food charity, it is essential for Christians to become involved in changing food production policies that would support more small and medium-scale farmers who would be encouraged to use sustainable practices through loan policies, for example. We would also need an agrarian reform plan and laws to limit how big a farm can be so that we prioritize the health of our population instead of prioritizing the profits of corporations.