By Christine Dickason
March 22, 2013
Caption : Joel Berg, Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, spoke to Campus Progress about the issue of hunger facing our nation.     

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Fifty million Americans are food insecure, and this number is growing, partly because the sequester (automatic spending cuts that were unleashed thanks to a lack of Congressional action) exacerbated an already shortage in funding for federal food assistance programs.

Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress is one of the leaders working to reverse this trend and restore food security for millions of Americans. He authored the definitive book on hunger in the U.S., All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America? and has appeared on or been quoted in numerous national media outlets, including CNN, the NBC Evening News, The New York Times, and the Washington Post.

Berg represented and advocated for over 1,100 nonprofit soup kitchens and food pantries during his tenure at the Coalition Against Hunger since 2001. Prior to his work in the nonprofit sector, he worked in the Clinton administration for eight years, holding various positions in the USDA. Through his years of work, he has remained an energetic, outspoken advocate for those struggling with food insecurity and is deeply passionate about how hunger is connected to the larger problem of poverty.

Campus Progress spoke with Berg about his advocacy concerning hunger in the United States, his involvement with the recently-released film, "A Place at the Table," and the impact the sequester will have on federal food assistance programs, specifically on young people.

CP: What sparked your passion for combating hunger in the United States?

Berg: I started my activism in the community when I was fourteen.  I had a number of issues I was intensely concerned about–the environment and apartheid, at the time. The university I ended up going to–Colombia–invested in combating apartheid, but also more broadly the poverty issue…hunger is arguably the most extreme manifestation of poverty. The fact that so many people had it was just particularly galling to me.

CP: Could you speak more about the stigma attached to seeking federal food assistance and ways that we could combat it?

Berg: There’s no question we have a double or triple standard when it comes to poor people’s programs. You know, when Donald Trump gets help a few dozen times a day from the government, that’s just business as usual. I don’t happen to own a private jet – do you?

CP: [Laughs] No, I do not.

Berg: Well, when his private jet uses the resources of federal air traffic controllers, he’s getting help from the government, far more help than a poor person would get. He’s got far more properties protected by government police officers and firefighters. The way we define our society is that it's just free enterprise. But if you need a little help to buy food, somehow that’s welfare, and we want you to feel really bad about it. We want to make it really hard for you to get it.

An even better example is social security. We created the idea of a social security that isn’t welfare, it’s a right, you earned it, it should be really easy to get…As a result, nearly 100 percent of eligible seniors get social security, and yet large numbers, about 1/3 of the people eligible for food stamps and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) don’t get it…You know, when you pay your federal income taxes even if you’re a billionaire, it’s voluntary, right—you don’t have to submit every receipt, only if you’re audited. And yet to apply for food stamps, you have to submit every receipt under the sun, you have to prove a negative.

And so it is an awful challenge. Much of what we do with government, we do online. You can go in a store, and be handed a credit card application, and by the time you leave, you will have the credit card in hand and operable. So why we still make many low-income people spend a day or two or three at social services offices, why it often takes a month or months more—under federal law, it’s supposed only to take a month to get people food stamps, it often takes two or three months—why we do that is simply because the politics of hating poor people.

CP: In the film, you mentioned that the 80s saw the rise of this belief that charities could fill in the gap for hunger, and that it’s not really the federal government’s place to do that. How would you respond to that argument, especially regarding the recent debates about the federal budget?

Berg: Look, giving the impression you can end hunger with a few more canned food drives is like giving the impression that you can fill the Grand Canyon with a teaspoon. And I say that—and I said that—and someone said, 'Well you could if you had enough time.' You couldn’t because the Grand Canyon would erode faster than you’d fill it, and that’s precisely what’s happening with hunger. Every year, more and more people are going to soup kitchens and food pantries, and every year more and more people are going hungry.

So the film does a lot of really great things. I think it explains public policy in a clear summarized way. I think it tells some incredible stories so people understand the real-life human dimensions of this. I think it’s the first really major media depiction in decades that accurately describes hunger as a political problem, not a food problem. And a poverty problem, not a food problem.

But I think one of the most important services it provides—it clearly dispels the charity myth, that charity can somehow solve this problem. And Tom Colicchio is one of the executive producers, and he is a great celebrity chef who has amazing restaurants, and over a few decades has raised a lot of money for hunger charities. So when he says, gee this is important, but this is not solving the problem—he has just a boatload of credibility.

I say to conservatives, just look at the map, and forget ideology for a second. You may not accept evolution, but maybe maps, maybe arithmetic. Every soup kitchen and food pantry and food bank in America distributes about 5 billion dollars worth of food. In contrast, the federal nutrition safety net is almost 80 billion dollars' worth of food. The SNAP cuts—the food stamps cuts—that were included the last version of the Senate farm bill, and we’re thrilled that the new Senate leadership budget resolution does not have any food stamps cuts to it, but the last Senate version of the farm bill had about 4.5 billion dollars' worth of cuts. So that’s as if every soup kitchen, food pantry, food bank in America didn’t exist for an entire year. The House farm bill? Had 16 billion dollars' worth of cuts. That’s as if every charity didn’t exist for three years. And I don’t know what the Ryan budget is up to in cutting food stamps, I understand the last version had something like 100 billion dollars in cuts. It’s like taking away 20 years' worth of charity. It’s ridiculous.

I give this analogy. We used to fight fires with bucket brigades. And they made us feel great, but they didn’t work and we replaced them with professional fire departments. If your house is burning and you’re on the third floor, which would you prefer? A volunteer bucket brigade which may or may not show up, which doesn’t have professional training, which has about 60 gallons of water per minute, or professional fire company, with 1000 gallons of water per minute that our tax dollars have paid them to be on call to help?

…How ridiculous it is when it comes to poor people, we say, oh these volunteer bucket brigades, they’ll solve it. Most charitably, it’s a mistruth. I think it’s more accurate to say it is a calculated lie. Conservatives used to be honest and lose elections. And what I mean by that, in the William F. Buckley years, they’d say, If people go hungry that’s not our problem. If people are poor, that’s not our problem. They just should work harder. And that’s just our view of life. Morally, I had a huge problem with that. But it was intellectually consistent. Because they made no bones about it—some people might go hungry or be poor under their policies. They did polling and they figured out they couldn’t win that way. So starting in the Reagan era and accelerating in the Gingrich era they came up with this absolute fabrication that, oh we aren’t going to make people poor or hungry, we’re going to liberate them! To be less poor or hungry, by taking away the anti-poverty programs. That’s like saying, we’re going to cure disease by taking away penicillin. We’re going to cure a drought by taking away water. It’s preposterous! I think we have to call it for what it is, and be crystal clear that it’s not even close to anything even vaguely true. And I submit at least some of the people saying it in their heart must know it’s not true.

CP: The sequester will have huge impacts on these programs, such as the WIC food program. How significant do you think this impact is going to be on those individuals who rely on federal food assistance programs?

Berg: Oh, immense. I just saw this right wing ad, oh it’s only a few pennies on the dollar. Well, first of all, it’s a few pennies on the entire federal dollar, and when you take out all the entitlement spending, etc., it’s a lot less of a dollar that you’re considering. So you’re taking that money out of the few programs—it disproportionately hurts low-income people…So this idea that everyone is sacrificing, that’s a little ridiculous.

The fact is that more than 600,000 low-income children, infants, and pregnant women are going to be kicked off the WIC program. The WIC program is one of the best pro-life programs that the federal government has ever created…So it’s pretty ironic you have all these members of Congress that claim to be pro-life who have just voted essentially to consign some babies to death. And that sounds harsh, but that is absolutely factually true. The WIC program is run by clinics with medical professionals—there’s no way on God’s green Earth that volunteers can pick up even a minute portion of that slack. And these programs are extraordinarily effective.

The sequestration is the dumbest possible way to run government. If someone came to you and said you have to lose 5% of your body and they gave you two choices: you could either take it off your hair or your fingernails and toenails, or it could come equally from all parts of your body, including your brain and heart, you’d choose, let’s get rid of the less useful stuff first.

So the fact is before closing tax loopholes for the rich like the President has proposed, before ending direct payments to farmers—we give them huge chunks of tax dollars for huge corporate farms whether or not they make money or lose money. Instead of getting rid of that first, the first thing you do is take away milk from infants who are low income? First of all, it’s immoral. Second of all, it’s extraordinarily economically counter-productive. Because the money we’re going to have to spend on health care spending for these folks in the long run is just tremendous…When you add to that, the fact that this November 1, every SNAP recipient in America is gonna get a cut. And this is just the existing cuts that honestly Democrats agreed to when the Democrats still controlled Congress and controlled the White House—any additional cuts are going to be on top of those cuts.

CP: As a student at the University of Mississippi, I have been involved with the campus food bank. But before my involvement in that, I was honestly really naïve about it. I had no idea how many college students were unable to provide food for themselves and went hungry. Is this something you have encountered in your own work, and if so, could you speak more about this?

Berg: That certainly is a problem, and it’s a real problem in New York. It’s sometimes a problem at state universities, but it’s a very, very serious problem at community colleges, where people often work part-time. And this shows you the hypocrisy of our social policies. Basically, the way welfare reform is construed, going to college full-time does not count as work. It shows you our double standards against low-income people.

When I went to Columbia and had a work study job, I was told, don’t work more than 8 hours work study a week, because it could really damage your studies, being distracted more than that. There's all these messages to middle class kids and upper class kids that education is a top priority, and to poor people–if you wanna get out of poverty you have to get a good education. But then our welfare reform policies, particularly for TANF, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which very few families get anymore, make it nearly impossible to get any of those payments while in college. So many struggling students have the choice either dropping out of college or somehow muddling through and becoming poorer in college.

There’s no question that many college students are in need of help. The rules make it very, very difficult for college students to get food stamps. And that’s just a bit preposterous…In this case, it’s just this obsession with not letting people get a penny they don’t deserve.

CP: Yeah, one of the quotes that stood out for me during the film was from Dr. Larry Brown. He was talking about how we have this love-hate relationship with the poor, where we want to help, but at the same time, our care is always predicated on a worry that someone might get something for free or something that they don't deserve. Do you think that's true?

Berg: …That’s absolutely true. First of all, few human beings are consistent. And Americans are particularly inconsistent when it comes to public policy. A deeply held belief of the vast majority of Americans is that no one goes hungry, or should go hungry. And a deeply held belief of at least of a majority of Americans is that there are too many poor people, too dependent on government. And so…that’s pretty inconsistent.

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