Developing strategies to end hunger

World Food Day - What You Should Know

The world produces lots of food, and on World Food Day (today—October 16) that seems like something we should be celebrating.

The global hunger rate is falling. Indeed, that’s good news. But it’s not because we’re producing more food. We produce more than enough to feed everyone, and have been doing so for some time.

Hunger is rarely about there not being enough food. It’s almost always about being too poor to afford food. The big reason hunger is going down is because economic growth in developing countries means that other opportunities besides subsistence farming have become available, making it possible for these farm families to escape a life of poverty. Subsistence farmers and their families make up the largest share of people who are hungry. When you have no other way to earn enough to buy food, you grow it yourself to eat and try to sell whatever’s left.  

There are billions of people around the world who depend on subsistence farming. World Food Day should be a moment to reflect on the people who produce food. The number of farmers who are actually making a decent living may number a few million. I doubt it’s that high.

Instead of romanticizing them, especially subsistence farmers, we may want to stop and reflect on how many would rather be doing something else if they had a choice. It’s not much different in rich countries than in poor. The reason people left agriculture in America was because it was never much of a way to make a living in the first place. Yes, mechanization (more so than policy) meant you had to “get big or get out,” to quote one of our former Secretaries of Agriculture, but people were already leaving the farm in droves decades earlier when more opportunities sprung up thanks to economic growth.

The U.S. food system is much bigger than farmers, and I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of good things to say about it. Ironically, the system we’ve developed to ensure food is cheap and plentiful for most people in the country also contributes a fair share to the hunger in the country.


In California, Fresno County is home to some of the largest farms in the country, and it also has one of the highest food insecurity rates. The farms there depend on the hands of immigrant workers. Many, if not most agricultural workers, are undocumented. They can’t take advantage of food stamps/SNAP, and since undocumented immigrants are treated as personas non grata, they are pushed to the margins of society where it is safer not to be seen or ask for help.

The vast majority of the remaining agricultural workers are immigrants who are here legally, but many of them don’t qualify for government food assistance either. The law says they must be in the country for five years before applying for assistance. It makes no sense at all to me that someone who is in the country legally must go hungry for some arbitrary period before qualifying for assistance.

Low pay plus lack of access to assistance is a recipe for food insecurity and hunger in any line of work., and it seems to be true of the food system at every link in the chain from farm to table. As we move into the processing sector, we find the same situation, because immigrants do most of the canning, meat packing, and other work designed to make our foods less expensive, longer- lasting and less good for us.

Let’s move on to the restaurant sector. Immigrant workers make up a smaller share of workers in the low-paying restaurant sector, but the sheer number of them doing this work is so great compared to the earlier touch points in the food system that this is where we find most of those who don’t get paid enough to afford food and don’t have access to assistance.

So far it seems like the food system is a problem just for immigrants. In the restaurant sector, the injustice of low wages fans out and swallows millions of U.S.-born workers. Some of the worst- paying jobs in the United States are in the restaurant sector. For example, servers (waiters and waitresses) earn as little as $2.13 cents per hour. The reason the wage is so low is because they are eligible to receive tips. If you work in a fine dining establishment, it’s possible to finish a busy night with a couple of hundred dollars in tips, but if you work at a place like Denny’s or IHOP, on a slow night you may have paid more to show up for work than you took home at the end of the shift.

A report released earlier in the week by the UC-Berkeley Labor Center studies on the fast food sector had some telling findings:

  • More than half (52 percent) of the families of front-line fast-food workers are enrolled in one or more public programs, compared to 25 percent of the workforce as a whole.
  • The cost of public assistance to families of workers in the fast-food industry is nearly $7 billion per year.
  • At an average of $3.9 billion per year, spending on Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) accounts for more than half of these costs.  
  • Due to low earnings, fast-food workers' families also receive an annual average of $1.04 billion in food stamp benefits and $1.91 billion in Earned Income Tax Credit payments.
  • People working in fast-food jobs are more likely to live in or near poverty. One in five families with a member holding a fast-food job has an income below the poverty line, and 43 percent have an income of twice the federal poverty level or less.  
  • Even full-time hours are not enough to compensate for low wages. The families of more than half of the fast-food workers employed 40 or more hours per week are enrolled in public assistance programs.

Striking fast food workers have been drawing a lot of attention in the last few months.They want raises. Most don’t make more than minimum wage, $7.25 per hour or thereabouts. According to the U.C. Berkeley study, the average wage in the fast food sector is $8.69 an hour.

A second report, released the same day as U.C. Berkeley’s by the National Employment Law Project, focused specifically on McDonalds. While the company netted $5.5 billion in profits last year, and devoted the same amount to dividends and stock buybacks, McDonalds’ workers received $1.2 billion in public assistance.

Up and down the food system, domestically or internationally, a small number of people get rich, a much larger group don’t earn much at all. That’s our food system, or maybe that’s just our global economy. That's something to keep in mind on World Food Day. Todd Post

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