Going to the Fair

Last weekend, I visited the grandly titled Tunbridge World’s Fair in Vermont, which is hands down my favorite fair, even up against stiff competition from our own local Agricultural Fair on the Vineyard. It was a crystalline September day, clear, warm, golden light. Families strolled through the fairgrounds, enjoying rides, the animals, the fair food. A quintessential American scene.

It was beautiful – and it was upsetting. Beautiful, because it was such a joyful family time. And upsetting, because an observer could so clearly make out which socioeconomic class a particular family belonged to. Signs of malnutrition were everywhere. Once you started seeing them, you couldn’t stop. Children at risk of diabetes in another fifteen or twenty years. Young mothers barely able to move fast enough to keep their toddlers safe. Malnutrition, American-style. It wasn’t that everyone there was morbidly obese, on the contrary. It was just that it was cruelly obvious, who in the crowd had the means to eat healthy food, and who did not.

It got me thinking about hunger in America, hunger and its other face, malnutrition. We know that in the United States fruits and vegetables are more expensive than processed food. The Food Research and Action Center has an excellent report, A Half-Empty Plate, on fruit and vegetable affordability and access challenges in America. Lots of reasons why, partly to do with farm subsidies that have had the unintended effect of privileging large soy and corn operations over smaller diversified farms. Subsidizing corn and soy has led to an overabundance of cheap processed food, which we are just coming to realize is a time-bomb in terms of public health. And yet, when the farm subsidies were first enacted, the pressing issue was getting the poor enough – anything! – to eat.

And it’s not like we’ve won that battle, by any means. FRAC also has a report, Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation, we’ve posted this week on the gaps in nutrition during the summer vacation, when children from poor families no longer can rely on school lunch for at least one full meal in a day. We have a short video this week courtesy of Feeding America, Real Stories of Hunger in America, which features three different families relating their experiences with hunger and coming around to getting help from a food bank. They aren’t Martians. Lose your job, and you could be in their shoes.

According to FRAC, nearly one in five American households struggles with food insecurity, making it critically important to preserve and ideally to beef up the SNAP food stamp program. The economic crisis has hollowed out the middle class in this country to such a degree that, as Saki Knafo and Joy Resmovits report for the Huffington Post, the number of homeless schoolchildren in the U.S. now tops 1 million.

What to do? James Weill, president of FRAC, has a plan in his blog on Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, Ending Hunger in America: A Step-By-Step Approach. The first thing, says Mr. Weill, is creating jobs offering wages that can actually support a family, followed by more comprehensive family support programs to supplement shortfalls in income, as well as SNAP and WIC and other child nutrition programs. It’s not rocket science. It’s an excellent blog.

And then, I think, we could definitely learn something from some of the old guys growing vegetables. I have a black thumb myself, and I can’t imagine how I would feed myself if I had to rely on what I could grow. But there’s an old farmer on the Vineyard I’d go talk to. His land is sandy, thin soil, just off the most charmless road on the island. Nothing to write home about. But on this small unpromising plot of land, he and his wife, who unfortunately died last year, produced the most amazing abundance of beautiful vegetables I’ve ever seen. What with the garden, hunting and fishing, I doubt they bought more than twenty percent of their food, if that much. We could all use a little more of those skills.

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Petra Lent McCarron is an experienced television and film producer and editor. She co-produced Stolen Childhoods and Rescuing Emmanuel for Galen Films.

Sarah Johnson contributed research for this week’s offerings.

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4 Responses to “Going to the Fair”

  1. Sara Crafts says:

    Petra, what a stunningly simple article, explaining so cogently the economic problems inherent in feeding us all well. So different than a local farms advocate rather cavalierly saying a few weeks ago “Just change your budget priorities.” (Hmm, let’s see, would that be food vs. electric bill?) I hope you will not mind that I shared this on my Facebook timeline. And thank you so much.

  2. Petra Lent says:

    I don’t mind in the least, Sara. Thank you!

  3. Thanks to Sara for calling my attention to this excellent article, and thanks to you, Petra, for writing it. I’d like to see attention paid not just to the food — nutrition, agribusiness, subsidies, and the rest — but to the eating. Food can be a tranquillizer, a depressant, a way to (literally) weigh oneself down. It can work like booze or drugs that way, only cheaper and more legal. When your prospects look, and perhaps actually are, dismal, eating can dull your senses so you don’t hurt so much or don’t realize you’re hurting. Without this awareness, much emphasis on “healthy eating” comes across as a sophisticated form of weight-loss dieting, and the all-too-familiar subtext is “Eieeeuww! Fat people!”

  4. Petra Lent says:

    What a great comment! You’re absolutely right, Susanna, to point out the psychological aspect of eating. It was interesting, I thought, that the New York Times just ran a front-page story yesterday on life expectancy, which is actually going down for some groups in America. Not staying level, which would be sad enough, but going down. There’s a lot of despair and hopelessness out there, justifiable despair, in terms of the opportunities available for people who don’t have much education, or the right kind of education. It turns out that poverty and despair can literally take ten years off your life.
    But turning this around is possible. We know how to do it. I suspect it would actually help the economy as well. Raising the minimum wage, for a start.

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