Prospect Heights resident Joel Berg, the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and author of the recently released All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?, got his start as an activist in 1978 at the age of 14. “I wrote an article on student drug use for the Spring Valley High School newspaper and the administration tried to censor it,” he recounts. “They said I was being sensationalist.”
Berg refused to be silenced, contacting the local newspaper, The Rockland County Journal, which ran a front page story entitled “School Censors Student Article.” Within days, the issue was a local controversy and Berg was catapulted into prominence.
By the time he was 18 he was actively involved in Democratic politics, running for his town’s school board and winning 40 percent of the vote. At 21, fresh out of Columbia University, he waged a losing campaign for New York State Senate against an 18-year-incumbent, Rockefeller Republican Gene Levy. Berg worked on the campaign staffs of Bruce Babbitt, Gary Hart, and Alaska Congressional candidate Peter Gruenstein before becoming Kansas Press Secretary for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential race. Under Clinton, Berg served in several appointments within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including a post in the Communications Office.
His eight years at the USDA brought him in contact with America’s poorest—and hungriest—residents. The experience reinforced his belief that government is responsible for feeding, sheltering, and educating those within its borders.
“The food issue has the potential to unite Right and Left,” Berg says. “Even very conservative people agree that it is unacceptable to have hunger in America.”
Yet we do. In his book, Berg points out that 35.5 million U.S. residents—including more than 12 million school-aged children—live in households that can’t afford enough food. Twenty-five million of these rely on pantries and soup kitchens to survive. Statistics for New York City are equally shocking: one in six adults and one in five kids lack an adequate supply of produce, protein, and grain. Emergency food programs regularly help 1.3 million residents of the five boroughs.
Berg shakes his head at the injustice: the richest country in the world having such rampant want. “There are 400 billionaires in the U.S. and millions of millionaires. No society in history has had this much inequality of wealth and survived,” he quips. “We could end hunger with an additional $24 billion per year; which just about equals the cost of three months of war in Iraq, six percent of Bush’s tax cuts, or about one percent of the Wall Street bailout.”
Calling himself a “radical centrist,” Berg argues that a national commitment to ending poverty is both necessary and possible. He challenges elected officials to stop acting as if charities and religious groups can solve the crisis. “Trying to end hunger with food drives is like trying to fill the Grand Canyon with a teaspoon,” he writes in All You Can Eat. “Local charities cannot possibly feed 35.5 million people adequately. This belief that charity does it better than government only ensures that hunger will persist in America.”
Berg uses an example from the mid-1800s to illustrate his point. At the time, private water brigades were the main fire prevention in cities and towns throughout the country. Despite their best efforts, the 60 gallons a minute hauled by workers barely made a dent and resulted in wide-scale property losses; in some cases fast-moving flames destroyed entire towns. After a few decades of this, government stepped in and professionalized the system, replacing buckets with trucks and hiring skilled firefighters to replace volunteers. The upshot is that the damage from today’s conflagrations is rarely as extensive as it was 150 years ago.
What’s more, he notes that the U.S. public health service eradicated cholera, malaria, and yellow fever domestically and programs like Social Security and Medicare provide a measure of economic surety to the disabled and elderly.
And the agenda is relatively straightforward. Berg believes that a new War on Poverty should be undertaken. He suggests measures like: boosting the minimum wage, upping monthly per-person food stamp allocations from $95.64 to an amount that reflects skyrocketing food costs, raising eligibility for entitlement programs, and revising the tax code so that the rich pay their fair share. What’s more, he calls for making low-cost food more readily available and streamlining the food stamp application and recertification processes to make them user-friendly.
As it stands, Berg writes, the food stamp bureaucracy deters new applicants. A recent New York City Coalition Against Hunger study found that only 65 percent of eligible people are receiving benefits, one of the lowest rates in the country. Berg blames cumbersome requirements, including a multiple-page application form and mandatory fingerprinting for applicants that he describes as inefficient and degrading. Worse, he continues, the $800,000 spent for finger-imaging in 2006 unearthed only 31 cases of suspected fraud out of the 1.1 million people enrolled in the program.
“It’s absurd,” he thunders with obvious annoyance.
“We’re at a great historical moment. First, we have a leader in the White House. Second, we have a budding social movement. The question is whether the temporary coalition Obama built can be harnessed into a political force. We know what works and we can get it done if we rid ourselves of the charity mindset. A White House conference on hunger could make food insecurity a top priority and end child hunger by 2015. Plus, if we had universal healthcare and affordable housing we’d fix seventy percent of the poverty in the U.S.”
Berg’s faith in the state is ironclad: “Government can solve the major problems in the country.” For him, hunger is a major problem that could be decisively solved if the federal government showed political will.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader
Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, writer, and activist. She writes the monthly Stoking Fire column on rhrealitycheck.org, and also contributes to feministreview.org, ontheissuesmagazine.com, The Progressive and other progressive, feminist publications and blogs.