By Zachary Lloyd
The Chautauquan Daily • July 1, 2014
Hunger in the United States looks different than anywhere else in the world, according to National Geographicphotographer Amy Toensing.
“Most of the time, you wouldn’t even know your neighbors were struggling,” she said. “How could you? Some of these people are overweight, and most are employed. They just can’t make ends meet.”
Award-winning photographer Toensing will be joined by New York Times best-selling author of The American Way of EatingTracie McMillan, at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater to discuss the topic of hunger in America.
Their collaborative feature story, “The New Face of Hunger,” will run in the upcoming August issue of National Geographic magazine. It is the duo’s goal to promote a thoughtful discussion on issues of access and equality that, according to a 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, cause nearly 14.5 percent of American households to be food insecure.
McMillan and Toensing’s discussion should resonate with local attendees.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s statistics for 2008 through 2012, 19 percent of Chautauqua County residents live below the poverty line, which is more than 5 percent higher than the state average. Outside of Chautauqua Institution, that means around 8,000 households in the county struggle to meet dietary demands on a daily basis.
“The New Face of Hunger” is the fourth magazine installment in the National Geographic Society and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s eight-month Food Project, which seeks to expound upon the issues of feeding a growing global population. And with nearly 50 million people battling proper nutritional demands, America represents a large player in the worldwide problem.
“There’s this false stereotype that hungry people are unemployed, or lazy, or just make bad choices when it comes to eating,” McMillan said. “But what it really comes down to is time, knowledge and money.”
McMillan said the oft-used excuse that healthy options are beyond budget is a farce, and argues that it is possible to eat well affordably. The bigger problems lie within most working-class families not having the spare time or know-how to prepare nutritious meals.
Toensing spoke about a family in Iowa. The mother, Kyera Reams, has turned managing her family’s dietary health into a full-time job. Reams is a mother of four whose husband, Joe, is on disability with multiple sclerosis. About a year ago, Reams decided she would not let her family’s health suffer by depending on what she called “emergency food” stocked at local pantries. By foraging for edible plants in the area around her home, planting gardens in her back and front yards, and snatching up leftovers from local farms, Reams now has three months of food stored in her home at any given time.
“She’s making it work, but it’s a full-time job,” Toensing said. “Most families don’t have this kind of opportunity.”
McMillan and Toensing agree that inadequate wages and misguided federal funding are the driving forces responsible for American food insecurity. According to McMillan, around 42 percent of government subsidies fall into the realm of commodity crops — those used for manufacturing and industrial purposes — while only 5 percent is used to fund specialty crops like fruits and vegetables. This skewed funding leads to America producing only half the total specialty produce needed to sustain its own population.
“This is really going to form the basis of our talk,” McMillan said. “What has changed? In most countries, it’s issues of distribution and reproduction, but here it’s more focused on big economic and political changes that need to happen.”