De-Provincializing Development

In this post, Garrett Broad describes community-based efforts to combat food insecurity in the United States and the rising stakes of the current administration’s plans to roll back food assistance and nutrition programs.

This is the second entry in our new series “De-Provincializing Development,” which seeks to cast a critical eye on US progress towards the new UN goals. It examines SDG #2: Zero Hunger.


In early 2017, Food Network host and celebrity chef Alton Brown announced on social media that he was taking a road trip across the United States and needed recommendations for the best dining spots along the way. After several months of Instagramming his #ABRoadEats, Brown declared Los Angeles the top food town in all of America.

UN event “Pathways to Zero Hunger.” Source: Flickr.

For anyone who has had the pleasure of enjoying the fresh produce and diverse cuisines of Los Angeles, Brown’s choice should not be that surprising. What might be surprising, however, is that Los Angeles County is home to nearly 1.5 million people with limited or uncertain access to an adequate supply of food—the largest population of food-insecure people of any county in the United States. And, as is the case in urban and rural areas across the nation, rates of food insecurity are dramatically higher in its immigrant communities and low-income neighborhoods of color.

This paradox of culinary abundance alongside food injustice is a central obstacle to the United Nations’ ambitious Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of “Zero Hunger,” which aims to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture. But the sobering truth is that we already produce more than enough food to feed the world; hunger in the twenty-first century, then, is mostly a failure of society and politics. Achieving the goal of zero hunger requires solutions that tackle food insecurity at its roots: combating poverty, decreasing inequality, and promoting food democracy.


Well-intentioned efforts like food pantries or school gardens, which tend to focus on food in isolation from other social issues, don’t go far enough to eliminate food insecurity in the long term. Rather, the most effective projects use food as a platform for an antipoverty and antiracist agenda for change, integrating initiatives related to food access and agriculture with participatory education and community economic development.


It’s been nearly a decade since I first began documenting how organizations and local residents in South Los Angeles—one of the most food insecure parts of LA—strive to achieve food justice for all. My research has shown that well-intentioned efforts like food pantries or school gardens, which tend to focus on food in isolation from other social issues, don’t go far enough to eliminate food insecurity in the long term. Rather, the most effective projects use food as a platform for an antipoverty and antiracist agenda for change, integrating initiatives related to food access and agriculture with participatory education and community economic development.

As I have traversed the country in recent years, I’ve come across a number of organizations that are developing increasingly well-conceived and holistic food justice projects, including Harlem Grown’s educational and workforce development initiatives, Uplift Solutions’ prison-to-supermarket model of reentry programming, Mandela Marketplace’s suite of cooperative food enterprises that support workers and farmers, WhyHunger’s grassroots movement-building strategies, and many more in between.

Over this time, I’ve seen the problem of hunger framed almost exclusively as a developing-world dilemma. Popular visions of hunger call to mind the famine declared in February 2017 in parts of South Sudan, as one hundred thousand people faced acute starvation and one million more stood on the brink. Across the globe, nearly eight hundred million people—or one in nine citizens—do not have enough to eat, and ninety-eight percent of those people live in developing countries.

Yet, around the same time that famine was declared in South Sudan, developments in the United States confirmed that hunger is not only a developing-world concern. The United States House Budget Committee—emboldened by the recent election of Donald Trump—approved a plan to slash the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan (SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program). Critics pointed out that more than forty-two million Americans already live in food-insecure households, insisting that the $150 billion in cuts would push millions more vulnerable, low-income Americans deeper into poverty. Trump’s severe crackdown on immigration would make things even worse, forcing frightened immigrant families to forgo food assistance, creating labor difficulties for farmers and workers, and ultimately making it harder for everyday Americans to access to fresh and affordable foods.

Still, even with these clear flaws evident in the food system, a persistent set of optimists continue to remind the public that significant progress has been made on the issue of hunger. They point out that the UN nearly met its Millennium Development Goal to cut hunger in half between 1990 and 2015, famines are remarkably rarer than they were a century ago, and Americans spend less of their income on food than any other nation in the history of the world. Technologically minded advocates often credit the Green Revolution for these gains and insist that the tools of biotechnology or logistical fixes to the problem of food waste will eradicate hunger once and for all.

But this progress and these promises should not be used to deflect from the fact that we could have done a better job all along, or from the moral imperative that we must do better in the years ahead. A better way forward requires a recognition that hunger will only be eradicated if nations and communities grapple with the fundamental issue at hand—not technology, but poverty. This is what propels the work of the US-based food justice groups I mentioned above, as they aim to create a more just economic system, invest in marginalized communities, and promote nutritional health and sustainability through the process.


A better way forward requires a recognition that hunger will only be eradicated if nations and communities grapple with the fundamental issue at hand—not technology, but poverty.


At this moment, #ZeroHunger lives online as a UN-promoted Instagram hashtag, but it’s still a long way from the villages of South Sudan or even the streets of South LA. And there is serious danger that the regressive budgetary, health care, immigration, environmental, and trade policies of the Trump administration will impede the domestic and international progress that has been made to reduce hunger and food insecurity. But there is also hope that the oppositional reaction to Trump could provide the force needed to expand the vision and goals of the food movement, pushing antihunger advocates to recognize the need for more sustainable economic models, a stronger safety net, the protection of immigrant rights, and the centrality of environmental justice in the ongoing quest for food equity.

Garrett M. Broad is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University.

CITE AS
Broad, Garrett M. 2017. “Fixing Hunger at its Roots.” American Anthropologist website, September 26.

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2 thoughts on “Fixing Hunger at its Roots by Garrett M. Broad (De-Provincializing Development Series)

  1. I strongly support the UN goal of #ZeroHunger, and agree that things look tough at present. I think there’s a missing clue that’s missing from this article: the farm side, the fight for farm justice in the U.S. Community-based efforts of any kind can support broader concerns, as Garrett suggests, if they use their venues as a bully pulpit, and if they make connections, as needed, to understand the broader issues. At present, however, the entire urban food-side movement, (and nearby local farm to food and sustainable agriculture movement,) all across the various sub-sectors, is alienated from farm-side farm justice activism, leading them not only to misunderstand, but to take the wrong side on some of the biggest issues related to hunger and other concerns. In short, they blame the victims, farmers, while supporting the colonizers, the hidden agribusiness winners. This comes largely or originally out of the farm subsidy myth, which fosters blindness to the “hidden” agribusiness benefits that are much larger than the “visible” subsidies given to farmers, and that are taken directly from farmers as cheap, below cost prices, leaving huge net reductions for US farmers, reductions that foster poverty all across the main poor, (i.e. rural) regions of the world, (where 80% of the “undernourished” are rural, as is 70% of LDC population). Fixing this happens, especially, right here in the United States, in the Farm Bill, but so far, (i.e. in the 2008, 2014 and [preparation for the 2018,] there has essentially been no understanding, and therefore no help from the Food Movement on these issues, on the core issue of global rural food poverty. All of this further has huge implications, not only for SNAP in the US, (as it frees up masses of money to make it easy to fund, which is also almost wholly unknown by the urban side,) but for changing U.S. politics (and world politics,) by changing the rural vote in the U.S. and cleaning house in Congress and in state legislatures. I see no hint that opposition to Trump himself necessarily does much to fix that, (the trendline has clearly been for greater Republican domination).

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