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Monday, November 18, 2013


The Local Lens
Published • Wed, Nov 13, 2013
By Thom Nickels

The recent cut in SNAP benefits or food stamps has made more than a few people uneasy. Obviously, this is the beginning of the end for food stamps. The cuts will lead to more cuts until finally food stamps will be a thing of the past. As reported by The New York Times, this year’s cut is "the largest wholesale cut in the program since Congress passed the first Food Stamps Act in 1964 and touches about one in every seven Americans."

Right wing Republicans (and even some Democrats who should know better) think that these cuts are good for people. "The government shouldn’t be helping people anyway," they proclaim. "One shouldn’t depend on the government for assistance."

Well, that was the general feeling in the year 1890, or the Gilded Age, when the poor literally starved in the streets or were mistreated by employers.

The SNAP cut is problematic because of what it portends for the future. Since the age of Ronald Reagan nearly every social program begun by FDR, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson has been marked for shrinkage or elimination. Assistance programs of all types are being slashed, from unemployment benefits, LIHEAP, and welfare. There are even those who still want to privatize Social Security and the Post Office.

But food, in case you haven’t noticed, is the new gold. That should be obvious to anyone who walks through the doors of the supermarket. Sometimes as I walk about the aisles there, I have to look twice at the very obvious spike of prices on many items. In fact, it’s gotten so bad at the supermarket that spending twenty dollars there will only net you a miniature (as in microscopic) bag of supplies.

Everyone is feeling the punch. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen disgruntled customers checking and rechecking the prices on receipts outside the supermarket before loading their groceries into cars. Their faces have a pale, shocked quality. They’re hoping that the huge total is the result of a mistake. But it is not a mistake. The total is as real as the cut in food stamps.

As a result of the upsurge in food costs, many people have discovered the "more for your money" pleasure of the Port Richmond Village mall’s two Dollar stores, that used to be places to buy non-food items like paper products but which are now fast becoming supermarkets because of the addition of more food aisles than ever before.

O the blessed times in which we live!

People who have never shopped at dollar stores are now packing the aisles there because, outside of blowing an entire paycheck on food, there’s simply no alternative.

"One can always eat less," as somebody once told me. Well, that’s true, but when ‘less’ spells hunger, then we have a problem.

There are food banks, of course. The PhilAbundance depository at 601 W. Lehigh Avenue is only one of many such free food banks in the city. On certain days of the week you can see the long lines of people waiting to obtain a very small amount of free food, from canned goods, meats, milk and cheese. Just one year ago the lines outside the Lehigh Avenue outlet were moderate in length, but today they stretch on for at least a block and a half. It’s obvious that the lines will grow substantially in the future. A good many of people in line are elderly who very often bring portable stools or fold up chairs to sit out the interminable wait, since the line moves at a snail’s pace. Good-natured volunteer workers stock the Lehigh Avenue outlet’s shelves and guide participants through the small room packed with food selections that vary from week to week. Some weeks, it seems, the selections are exceedingly generous, but other weeks there’s no variety at all. But you can always count on canned beans, corn, plantains (not bananas), crème of chicken soup and frozen pork sausage. Hey, it’s food!

While the PhilAbundance scene is enough to make the uppity Whole Foods crowd hold their noses, if things get much worse the invisible food immunity granted to Whole Foods Foodies will come to an end.

Unfortunately, the variety of free food offered at PhilAbundance has suffered serious declines. A year or two ago participants could take twice as much food as they are being offered today, a downsizing that suggests the program might be in trouble because of the huge numbers of new applicants.

It’s enough to make a prophet of doom ask: are we headed for some kind of food shortage or famine? As reported by Stephen C. Smith of George Washington University, "About 925 million are currently hungry, not far from the all-time record. A family living in poverty in a low-income country may spend almost three-quarters of their income on food."

Are we, as a nation, going to suffer food shortages in the future so that we go around looking like those leading Hollywood actors who lose weight just to excel in a movie role? Careerism, not hunger, nearly destroyed the bodies and health of these actors (who should know better) when they lost 50 pounds or over to win a Golden Globe or an Academy Award. The photos of these emaciated men, available on the Web, remind us of authentic victims of hunger, or even some future scenario of what many of us would look like when, and if, there’s not enough to eat, or if food becomes so expensive that it is attainable only by a few. The results of not eating can be ghastly. Nothing can explain the absurdist antics of those careerist actors who risk death, disease and the deterioration of their looks just to sustain a role in a movie.

Actor Tom Hanks may have been having fun when he lost 55 pounds to play a FedEx employee stranded on an island in the movie Castaway’ but in the end he gave himself infections, a rapidly aged face and body, and diabetes.

Actor Christian Bale is probably the most extreme example of a careerist weight loss fanatic. When he lost weight to appear in The Machinist, not only was he barely recognizable in his new skeletal state but also many say that he came very close to death. Of course, this latest Hollywood trend among male actors is its own story, but it does serve to point out the horrific effects of going hungry and starvation.

I’m not saying that the people in the PhilaAbundance line look like Christian Bale or Tom Hanks after a self-imposed starvation diet, but the sickly images of these guys do illustrate the supreme importance of food and nutrition, and the disastrous effects of forced fasting or not being able to eat because of controlled (high) food prices, corrupt Agribusiness, or famine.

It may or may not be science fiction to imagine that during any world emergency, the availability of food would almost certainly be affected in a negative way, and that eating as one ate "before" would be the exclusive province of the rich.

Food, at that point, would have an even higher value than gold.