why we all can’t help stealing from the poor

Pope Francis says wasting food is like stealing from the poor.

I think he could have said that wasting food IS stealing from the poor.

Equating the two exactly might be a little far-fetched on an individual basis. My spoiled lettuce could, in theory, have been given to the poor, but if it hadn’t gone to waste, it wouldn’t have been because I made a salad for the homeless guy outside. It would have been because I made a salad for myself.

On a corporate level, though – the systems that make it so easy for individuals to waste food – they are one and the same. Wasting food is stealing from the poor.

Our food is cheap enough to waste largely because of USDA subsidies to farmers. Among other strategies for manipulating the market, our government buys agricultural products from our farmers to keep them off the market and allow American farmers to set prices in the world market for many goods. The EU and other developed countries also have the resources to play along with various kinds of subsidies for their own farmers. This keeps developing countries, many of which are already crippled by debt owed to developed countries, from being able to produce or buy food to feed their own people (more here).

Working at the food pantry and with the Food Bank (the nonprofit wholesale distributor for food pantries), I see what few Americans see (or at least understand): I actually watch that food get wasted.

Some of those products are simply destroyed, but some are packaged and sent to the Food Bank. They are, in turn, made available to the food pantries for free or for pennies. Hooray!

Except not.

Generalizations, which can apply to a large group but should not be assumed about any individual, now follow.

Our clients don’t want them.

how would you incorporate this into your diet this week?

how would you incorporate this into your diet this week?

They don’t know how to cook very many things.
They, like most of us, like processed foods in brightly colored packaging.
They can get those foods from corporate donations to the Food Bank and using food stamps.
When the food stamps run out, they use their own money or go to the soup kitchens (which, admittedly, might find ways to use this stuff).

They’re just not in dire need of, and have no desire for, canned sliced carrots, or suspicious-looking bagged mashed potatoes, or dry kidney beans.

This includes me. I use my food pantry, but I’d rather pay money for fresh carrots than come up with something to do with these gross ones. I get the canned corn and tomatoes, which I know how/want to actually use, like everyone else. And which the pantry has to buy at grocery store prices because they are so popular.

Those 48 cans of carrots will not be gone for at least a year; meanwhile people an ocean away starve by the millions.

It is an uncomfortable and politically unpopular truth that American poverty, while a vicious and multifaceted evil, is generally a luxurious lifestyle compared with the lives of the world’s poor. But it doesn’t take a Ph.D in economics to see that our farm subsidies benefit huge farming corporations tremendously; small family farms a little; and America’s poor a negligible amount.

And they are actively feeding a system that results in the deaths of the world’s most vulnerable – such as mothers with children living on less than $2 a day.

Of all the things in the world that bother me, I truly have no idea what to do about this. This is a function of Congress and the agricultural lobby, and has nothing to do with my choices; more than that, it’s just about the least sexy, most complicated issue our legislators deal with. Don Draper himself couldn’t sell the voting American public on a “stop supporting our farmers” bill.

I hope that poorer nations will develop governments and markets strong enough to compete.

And I hope that Pope Francis will not be dismissed as “out of touch with reality” for his justice-oriented statements, the way his predecessors were for their morality-policing ones. Because, whether we like it or not, he is right. It is simple.

Wasting food is stealing from the poor.

The Farm Bill, reassessed every five years, is currently before Congress. Some more info here.

Leave a comment


  1. There is a growing resentment toward big agriculture. I imagine we will see major changes in our lifetime, but it will be a while before anything really gets off the ground.

    • I agree. I’m impatient. And very attuned to the upper-middle-class-ness of the current movement.

      I wonder if the changes could be market-driven, or if they will have to be mandated by government regulations?

  2. claire

     /  June 7, 2013

    yeah, girl. look at this: http://www.freshthemovie.com. i’m spending the summer at an urban farm and doing a lot of writing about these issues.

    • will watch with boyfriend.

      any thoughts on my question under Chris’s comment?

      • claire

         /  June 12, 2013

        i think that as with most social justice issues, it will have to be a combination of community demand and legislative change. cultural awareness of american starvation is increasing, but hasn’t reached the critical mass necessary for the larger public outcry that motivates politicians to choose a side and take action. right now the combination of ignorance of what constitutes real nutrition and government subsidies of gm crops that worm their way into junk food leaves us with a big blind spot. the pope is right, but we’re not just stealing from the poor, we’re poisoning the poor, too.
        like you, lyndsey, the thing that a. and i have been encountering that most frustrates the issue, is the faddish nature of eating local, organic produce. there are a surplus of fancy moms in belle meade, one of nashville’s most opulent neighborhoods, who will drive their range rover out to his work (a farm and co-op) as a field trip for the kids, and to buy $300 worth of groceries for their week. economics and limited education create the dividing line, not in quantity of food, necessarily, but certainly in its quality. rather than seeing good food as a process, or finding connection to bodies and earth and seeing our food choices as part of a holistic web, it has become culturally commodified, a status symbol instead of a human right.
        this is also problematic because there is such a shortage of people who actually want to tend the earth. most of those with the privilege and knowledge to access real food have little or no interest in participating in its cultivation, and thus sustain a diminished view of physical labor. there aren’t many who want to sift the food scraps, break up the rooster fights, make biodynamic compost teas, or tend the worm bin. that work has lost its inherent value for us, and, frankly, that distaste exists across all of our other dividing lines – those outside of this consuming upper class bubble don’t particularly see farm work as the american dream. independence and the gratification of a day’s work are distasteful, and we favor office jobs, management, computers. a very artificially constructed, insulated security has become our standard of achievement, at the expense of knowing nature and rolling up our sleeves.
        on the farming end of this movement is the hope that we could return to the early pioneer dream of subsistence farming, or at least, certainly, the incredible productivity of the WWII era victory gardens. but these shifts require much more work on our ethos, and as believers, on our theology. if you’re really into this and haven’t already, check out the writings of wendell berry. he very clearly identifies and addresses the disastrous impact of our abuse of the earth, and the role of christian faith in restoring dignity to creation, as well as those who most greatly pay the cost of the capitalist technological ravaging of ecosystems and especially soil.

        • Wow. How does this relate to your life in Nashville? I assume you don’t have a victory garden in your apartment…

          Your frustration with “good food as a status symbol” resonates with me a lot. It becomes this way that people distinguish themselves from the great unwashed masses – from all the “sinners” – instead of contributing to a world where that food is available to everyone.

          I’m also distressed by the fact that people can’t/refuse to spend enough time in the kitchen to actually cook. Which points to more and more issues and the fact that all of this requires a lifestyle change/paradigm shift that is completely foreign to our default individualist consumer ethos.


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