The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

October 19, 2011

Zachary Hubbard | Hunger in America is no ‘hoax’

Zachary Hubbard

— The following is an open letter to nationally acclaimed economist and conservative columnist Thomas Sowell. His column appears regularly in The Tribune-Democrat.

Dear Mr. Sowell,

Let me set the stage. I’m a conservative who leans politically toward the right and usually votes as an independent. I’m a great fan of yours and always look forward to your weekly columns.

I admire your conservative views, your economic expertise, your common sense and the scholarly manner in which you express them all.

Recently, however, you disappointed me deeply.

In your column, “Hunger hoax, poverty hoax and nanny state gov’t,” you suggest that real hunger does not exist in America. Rather, you said, hunger is a political tool used by the left to manipulate public opinion and shape political action. You couldn’t be more wrong!

Your column references studies by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but gives nothing more than generalizations to support your argument.

You suggest that the poorest in our nation enjoy nutrition levels equivalent to the middle and upper classes. You further put forward that obesity among our poor is directly tied to laziness – individual choices to consume unhealthy foods, all resulting from lethargy and a dislike of cooking.

Since you choose to reference the CDC, please allow me to do the same.

A 2009 CDC report, titled “Early assessment of programs and policies to prevent childhood obesity evaluability assessment synthesis report: Access to healthy foods,” indicates that poor neighborhoods are far less likely to have large grocery stores. Therefore, residents are more likely to do their grocery shopping in local corner stores and small convenience stores that do not offer a wide variety of food choices, particularly fresh foods.

Healthy, fresh foods generally cost more than prepared, less healthy foods. Poor neighborhoods tend to have more fast food restaurants.

The poor, many of whom have no cars, are compelled to use local stores and restaurants. Yes, maybe they could take a bus to a supermarket, but have you ever tried to drag a shopping cart worth of food, stuffed in plastic bags, across town in a bus?

Furthermore, Mr. Sowell, I recommend you take a trip to a local supermarket. Do a quick price analysis and you’ll find that a box of macaroni and cheese costs a lot less than a bunch of fresh asparagus; a fatty pork roast is cheaper than a lean beef roast; a 2-liter bottle of soda is cheaper than a half-gallon of orange juice; American cheese is cheaper than Swiss cheese; pork and beans cost less than artichoke hearts; and a loaf of white bread is cheaper than a loaf of whole- grain bread. Are you beginning to see the nutritional challenges faced by the poor?

Then there’s the problem of living in an urban environment. Many country people, although poor, have a plot of land on which they can grow a vegetable garden and maybe raise a few chickens. They know how to can food and they put away as much as possible during the good times to sustain them through the hard times. Perhaps your family did this when you were growing up in North Carolina.

City dwellers don’t enjoy this blessing. I’m surprised you didn’t learn this after your family moved to Harlem, in New York City.

I wish you were more specific in citing references for your column, because the human evidence I’ve witnessed simply doesn’t support your argument.

If you want to see hunger in America, let me invite you to my hometown of Johnstown.

I’ll pay your airfare and you can stay at my house (my wife’s a great cook by the way). You see, we have firsthand experience with the poor in our community and we’ve seen the ugly face of hunger that plagues far too many Americans.

Sure, there are those who abuse the system, but we’ve seen enough empty pantries, empty refrigerators and swollen bellies on children to know that hunger is a serious problem in our area. And personally, we’d prefer that a few system abusers slip through the cracks than have those who are truly in need go hungry.

By the way, you seem concerned that many of those living below the federal government’s “official poverty line” have air conditioners, microwave ovens and DVD players, and own cars. Let me assure you that many of the poor enjoy none of these. In fact, many have no house or apartment at all. We call them the homeless and they will always be among us. We see them regularly in our local soup kitchens.

If you want to learn about hunger in America, without the bother of traveling to southwest Pennsylvania, just ask a teacher from your nearest inner-city school. Thank God for federal- and state-sponsored school meal programs that feed the needy children – programs, by the way, that your colleague Rush Limbaugh has repeatedly mocked on his radio program.

For many children participating in these programs, the meals they receive at school are the only regular food source they can rely upon.

Unfortunately, these meals aren’t normally available during the school’s summer vacation periods, nor are they available on weekends.

Not convinced yet? Then pick up the phone and call any staff member of the charitable organization Save the Children in my birthplace, Harlan County, Ky. Any one of them can describe the ravages of hunger to you. They see it daily working among the children in their communities. Or you can ask my brother, who worked as a Head Start teacher in southeastern Kentucky. He used to carry shoes and food in the trunk of the car to give to the poorest kids.

Here’s the bottom line, Mr. Sowell. Many conservative blogs have latched onto your recent column as indisputable proof that hunger in America is really a hoax. There’s a flaw in your argument, however.

If, as you contend, hunger does not exist in America, then you must logically conclude that poverty does not exist either, because the two go hand-in-hand. I eagerly await your next column on the “Poverty Hoax” in America.

Zachary Hubbard is a retired Army officer and freelance writer residing in Upper Yoder Township. He is a member of the Tribune-Democrat Reader Advisory Committee and an avid supporter of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Save the Children.

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