Toensing, McMillan: Hunger no longer affects ‘marginal’ populations


By Allison Levitsky


Photo by Rachel LeGoubin, Chautaqua Daily staff photographer

The Chautauquan Daily  • July 2, 2014

In 1968, CBS Reports showed a documentary called “Hunger in America.” The film illustrated the face of late ’60s poverty: uneducated, unemployed men and women raising skinny-legged kids in run-down shacks. Senior citizens and children were the worst affected. One in 20 Americans at the time struggled with hunger, a figure just above the unemployment rate.

That picture has changed.

Today, 41 percent of people on food stamps live with an income earner. Adults of working age are the fastest-growing group to struggle with hunger. One in six Americans is hungry.

These were some of the trends explored by Tracie McMillan, the Brooklyn-based author ofThe American Way of Eating, in the Amphitheater on Tuesday. The writer was joined by Amy Toensing, a photojournalist who has contributed to National Geographic for more than a decade. The two collaborated on the upcoming feature “The New Face of Hunger,” which will run in the August issue of National Geographic.

The talk was the second morning lecture in this week’s theme, “Feeding a Hungry Planet,” presented in partnership with National Geographic. 

In researching “The New Face of Hunger,” Toensing and McMillan traveled to rural Iowa to document the daily lives of families who were “food insecure,” a term designated to anyone who, at some point in the last month, has not known the source of their next meal. The results surprised the two: not only was hunger pervasive and often undetectable, but close to home.

“My experience is almost always outside of the United States,” Toensing said of her work photographing poverty and hunger. “It tends to be in a developing world country, and it’s someplace really far away. Not here. Not America. Not us.”

Having worked extensively to document indigenous life in New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and Australia, she never expected to photograph families who could not always feed themselves in Iowa, America’s breadbasket.

“None of us are immune,” Toensing said. “As a freelancer, I feel like I’m one sickness, one accident away from needing that sort of assistance.

“How do you know your neighbor isn’t hungry?” she added. “How do you know your neighbor had a good breakfast this morning?”

As 15 percent of the U.S. population grapples with hunger, the problem is personal. But it’s also rooted in economic policy, McMillan said.

McMillan sees the hunger problem as a symptom of an economic system that underpays workers and does not provide an adequate social safety net for them.

In 1968, when the amount of hunger in the U.S. nearly matched the unemployment rate, the federal minimum wage was the equivalent of $10.94 in today’s dollars. Today, it is $7.25.

On top of that, food stamp funding is being cut, and the U.S. mostly subsidizes commodity crops such as corn and soy. The U.S. only grows enough fruits and vegetables to adequately feed half of the population the daily recommended amount of these food groups, McMillan said.

The solution needs to address the economic factors that lead to hunger, she said. Founding more food banks is not the answer. Food banks mostly stock nonperishable items that are highly processed and full of sugar. Both Toensing and McMillan reiterated that the old grocery store pastries, pancake syrup and Jell-O that line food bank shelves cannot healthfully sustain people long-term. But the so-called “emergency food” is increasingly becoming a normal part of many Americans’ lives. One food bank operator featured in “The New Face of Hunger” noted a 10 to 15 percent increase in clients each year.

“A generation ago, there were a couple hundred emergency food providers in this country,” McMillan said. “We’ve gone from a few hundred in the ’60s and ’70s to 60,000 food assistance agencies across the country.”

One hundred of those emergency food providers are now on college campuses, McMillan said.

“There is not that much ‘emergency’ left in this,” said McMillan. Hunger, she said, has left the 1968 margins and entered the mainstream.


Q Matt Ewalt: Journalists are asked how they remain objective and distance themselves emotionally from a story, but with a story like this, for which there are reminders in every community and as you both return home after the story is done, is it important — or even possible — to distance yourself emotionally or is the assignment even done for you?

McMillan: For me, I think the key with trying to remain objective is just being aware of the emotional journey and that I’m and making sure that I’m not trying to fudge facts due to my own emotional needs. I think that’s the main thing. So, doing this kind of reporting, you are building relationships with people, and its your job as a reporter to keep enough intellectual distance that you can do your job well. But certainly you forge a relationship with people. It changes the way you view the world, and that’s part of what’s really wonderful about doing this kind of work.

Toensing: For me, as a photographer, I’m communicating on a very emotional level so I actually go pretty deep in terms of connecting. I mean, Tracie totally connects with her subjects, but I’m not as concerned about these facts because that’s not what I’m taking in. I’m more taking in the feeling of being in the space with people. That’s more important information for my pictures. That’s why it’s so awesome to work with a writer because, a lot of people ask, “Do you write and take the pictures?” and I’m always like, no way, because that’s the space that I have to get into. I have to be absorbing in a very emotional and visceral way, and I think Tracie does too, but she has a huge responsibility for explaining this in a reporting fashion, and so I find it challenging. I find it challenging to…the entrances and the exits of these stories, but it’s also something that is the most beautiful part of my life, so it’s both.

Q: A few years ago there were stories about families of military personnel being on food stamps, is this still common, and is anything being done to remedy this — especially in communities that you both covered?

M: So, I’m not sure on the most recent research for that. I would guess it’s still a problem because we still havemostly low-paying jobs for folks. Hunger is really becoming a more an American mainstream problem. I saw in The Washington Post earlier this year about how colleges around the country, about a hundred now, have food pantries on campus for their students because of its become such a common problem about among college students.

Q: This is a question via Twitter: Are you aware of any countries that have a successful system for feeding the hungry?

M: I will say that, in most European countries, the sort of numberwhere we said it’s aboutone in six Americans now, in Europe it’s still around one in 20, so places seem to have a different wage and labor system and a different kind of social safety net. It seems like they are able to deal with that more efficiently than here.

Q: How do you define food insecurity?

M: That’s a great question. So the USDA produced the term food insecurity several years ago, and it refers to — I believe the actual standard is — if you have run out of food in the last month, or have been in danger of running out of food. So it’s not hunger in the way that we think of in terms of famine. It’s not that there is no food whatsoever anywhere coming in. Food insecurity is looking at, are you in danger of running out of food, do you run out of food at least once a year. I don’t know the exact definition, it’s on the USDA’s website, and if Billy is here, I met a gentleman from USDA last night, I’m sure he could tell us.

Q: Another question via Twitter asking if either of you can connect obesity with the with the hunger issues that you addressed today, then the follow up, do we have healthy food shelves? This person says all they can see are carb-heavy food shelves.

M: So proving that direct link between hunger and obesity is some very tricky social science, and nobody has really done that as of yet, because you have to show first of all that there is hunger and then that their hunger is this, and that their diet leads to obesity which is a little tricky. That said, I talk to advocates and experts on this all the time, and the phrase I keep hearing all the time is that hunger and obesity are the flipsides of the same coin, and that’s because processed food and carbs and sugars are so cheap and ubiquitous and easy to get, whereas healthier food is not. And so a talking point that I use a lot when I give talks these days is that we’ve made it really cheap and easy to eat crappy food, and low and behold people are eating crappy food. So if we want people to eat better maybe we should just try to make better food cheap and easy. It’s pretty simple.

Q: Another question via Twitter: How many similarities do you see between your photographs and those of Walker Evans from the War on Poverty Era… any change over time?

T: I think I’m more familiar with Dorothea Lange, but I’ll just think of images from that era, I think people were skinnier. Yeah, I think that the images of people were more slender so that’s definitely a big change.

Q: Have you reported on the growing urban agriculture movement, and what role do you see it playing in addressing hunger in the US?

M: Well, thank you for asking. Why yes I have. I’ve actually been covering urban agriculture for five or six years — starting in New York but also doing work in Detroit, and around the country. Something that really parallels nicely with what Jim and Dennis were talking about yesterday is that urban agriculture is incredibly productive per square foot. We get much higher yields in these small city plots than you’ll get in a big commercial field because they’re sort of an economy of scale. You have a giant field with a machine you don’t need as much per square foot, you have a city lot you need to get everything out of it that you can. I don’t know that that’s the way that we solve every problem of feeding people in the US or anywhere else. I do know that Cleveland and Detroit have done studies about how much food they could produce locally, in terms of what the city needed, and Cleveland estimated that they could cover pretty much everything in terms of fruits and vegetable needs growing in town, and then Detroit could do about half. So its very interesting to see that sort of thing coming up, and also to see the passion that you have in low income communities around getting food that you have. And, for me, that’s the most interesting thing about urban ag., not that you have to fix everything, but that it really shows that even low-income city people care enough about food to go out and start growing it themselves. It’s not that there’s not demand for it.

Q: Final question for both of you, especially with the article coming out in the August issue, but also for this audience: What do you recommend Chautauquans advocate for and urge their friends to do to immediately address hunger in America?

T: I would say it ends with what Tracie summarized this talk with; it’s a lot about wages.

M: Wages seems to me to be the real question to worry about here. If you’re talking about what can I do immediately in my community, I think working with food banks is great, I think doing work around food literacy — so people know how to cook and prepare food for themselves that’s healthy — I think that’s all really powerful and great, but I don’t think that’s actually going to solve hunger as an issue. You might fix it in your neighborhood, and if that’s what you want to do that’s awesome. But the real question here really is about wages.

T: I just want to add one more thing to that too, but the final story I gave in my talk about coming up against my own relative with these issues is I sense a tremendous amount of hostility and confrontation around this issue. Everywhere you look in the media there’s a lot of confrontation about this. And I think that starting this conversation here and realizing actually what the facts are, are maybe some of the first steps as well. We need to learn how to talk about this and we need to be more informed about it, so I think we need to be educating people about what’s really going on.

M: I second that.

—Transcribed by Zachary Lloyd

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