Laurie: Hidden Brain podcast from NPR
Claire: The Parent Test series on Hulu
Nichole: ‘The Whiteness Myth’ episode on the Throughline podcast
Hunger in America documentary from CBS that is referenced:
Dr. Laurie Green is the author of the upcoming book, The Discovery of Hunger in America: A Site of Public Crisis of Race, Health, and American Democracy. Claire Campos O’Neal and Nichole Abshire were so grateful for the historical context she provides for hunger in the US. She walks them through the early governmental programs like Surplus Commodities (1930s) and how it was never meant to address hunger but actually meant to support the farming industry. They move on to the ‘discovery’ of hunger in the 1960s that culminated in the food stamps program. They discuss the barriers created by charging for a program whose beneficiaries have no money. They also discuss the particular language used now–food insecurity—and how it came into our vocabulary in the 1990s in the Clinton administration. Dr. Green is masterful at sharing how the details of history inform our present and how vital it is for fully grasping our current struggles.
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
History Of Hunger In America With Dr. Laurie Green
We have an awesome episode for you. In this episode, we are talking to Dr. Laurie Green, who is a professor at UT. She’s also a historian. I’m glad that we were able to find a historian to help us understand the history of hunger in America because there was quite a history here that I didn’t know, Nichole, and I don’t think you knew it either.
We were both very ignorant of where we are now and how we got here. Laurie knows so much about this. She was an incredible guest and such a wealth of knowledge. She is currently working on a book called The Discovery of Hunger in America: A Site of Public Crisis over Race, Health, and American Democracy. Right off the bat, when we heard that title, we were like, “She would be perfect. She should come on the show.”
She’s exactly who we need to talk to.
There are lots of thoughts still ringing in my head. Nichole, what are some of your key takeaways?
Many of these episodes find me in an emotional place. Here’s my little forewarning, everybody. This is another one of those moments. I have a bit of an emotional breakdown or moment within the episode and I’m still processing through that for sure. I hope we talk about it more in the mini, but Laurie does such an amazing job of contextualizing all of the history around what we now call food insecurity. Other times, it has been called starvation or hunger. The wealth of her knowledge is incredible and I feel so fortunate that we got to hear from her to understand where we come from and, hopefully, let that provide some wisdom about where we are right now.
As a reminder, the thing that triggered our thought on even talking about hunger in Texas and food insecurity is the fact that Nichole and I will be hosting a South by Southwest panel in the Civic Engagement track called Hunger Games. Who is Winning in Our Broken System? We are speaking to those who are going to be on our panel. Unfortunately, Laurie was unable to be a panelist.
We were hoping that would happen, but her schedule had a conflict, but she’s on the show, so you all get to hear that conversation and learn with us more about this very important issue that the more we talk about, the more I’m realizing needs more attention. I can’t believe that we don’t talk about this more. Check out this episode with Dr. Laurie Green.
Everyone, thank you for joining us for this episode. We are excited to be speaking with Laurie Green about hunger in America. She’s a historian who works at UT and she’s such a wealth of knowledge. We’re so excited to get into this. Laurie, how are you doing?
I love your show.
Thank you. We’ve talked a few times leading up to this and every time we talk, my brain is running in a bunch of directions because you’ve sparked so many great thoughts. I’m glad we get to talk on the show and share these conversations with our readers. At the beginning of the show, we love to talk about who our guest is and get to know them a little bit better. Are you from Texas? Where did you grow up?
I grew up from my first seventeen years in New Jersey, where my parents were involved with Civil Rights from when I was tiny. They were also somewhat involved with the farm worker movement. Farm workers might have migrated from Florida and then wound up in New Jersey or Long Island or come from Texas and gone over to Florida and then up. I was raised with a lot of consciousness though I have to say I grew up in one of those suburbs near Newark.
A fellow suburb gal outside of Dallas.
I don’t want to diss my hometown because there’s a great online group, but I loved being close to New York City and some other places. I loved to travel.
It sounds like your parents were pretty civically involved. I’m assuming that you all talked about politics. Was that the case growing up?
Yeah. Years later, I met a friend who would come over for dinner and she said she loved coming for dinner because we were always talking about politics and she knew nothing. It was so exciting to come to dinner at our house. I had an interesting experience that made a big impact on me as well. I was part of the very first women’s studies class in New Jersey and the woman who taught it, I had to get special permission because I was a freshman. It was for sophomores. That person, Betty Wilson, then ran to be a state rep. I was passionate about that. I was a young person and got bummed out about how the legislature worked because all these trade-offs were built into the other. I started thinking that there needed to be some other ways of social change.
What drew you to become a historian? What was it about that path that was interesting to you?
I don’t want to talk too long about this, but it did lead to me going to college at Wesleyan and having all these questions about how things change. I remember interviewing someone from several different departments to say, “How does your department address this question?” I wound up doing something that I called political sociology, which I learned from some great people, but it also didn’t have a lot of requirements, so I got to take other things.
I did some big projects there. I got to the end and I thought, “It’s all about history,” because if we come up with these fixed concepts about the world as always like this, then we have this great analysis, but it doesn’t help us understand that there’s a past, a present, and a potential future. It was then all about history to me. Although before I went to graduate school, I was working as a community organizer. I came out of college and I was ready to hit the ground. I never thought I would go to graduate school.If we come up with these fixed concepts about the world, then our great analysis doesn't help us understand that there's a past, a present, and a potential future. Click To Tweet
We hear the phrase that those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it. It’s a cliche at this point because we only hear it so commonly but I’m curious. When you hear that, what dings for you or do you feel anything when you hear that?
I think that it’s crucial for people to know their history. Currently, my students are mostly 18 to 22, but I also have a lot of older students. When I’m teaching women’s history, which one component would be the history of reproductive justice or my Civil Rights classes, I know that there’s a real influx of students who want to know how we got here. They are stunned to find out that some of the struggles that we might think are new were also struggles of the past. I would say that as a historian, I hear people that talk about cycles of history. There are always these cycles of history.
Hunger might be a cycle that always happens, but there’s a sense of inevitability about that. It’s so important to understand that things might look the same. There might be similar struggles, but we’re in a different context. The current generation has the burden of having some successful movements and then having to deal with, “Why was there retro-regression? How did we get to where we are now?”
We are always talking about this. History doesn’t always go like this, which we expect it to do. We expect there to be this constant modernization and everything’s going to get better. I think that if I were to find a word that sent me to graduate school, it would be retro-regression. It’s that history doesn’t only go forward. The phrase “doom to repeat” didn’t quite come to mind, but I will say, that the people that I interviewed for my first book had a sense that if you stop the movement. If you stop activism and take what you achieved for granted, you may go backwards.
A lot of people said that and when you look at something like reproductive justice, I think that we see that in a sense. Also, I think there’s a way in which what I think people would call food justice now. There was a similar taking for granted of what got one through difficult struggles but I started after college in activism that, in a certain sense, came out of those movements around food and hunger.
Something I hear a lot now is that democracy is a muscle. You have to flex it. It doesn’t stay static. It’s something that you have to work on. It is triggering that thought and it is true. We assume it’s going to be there to our detriment sometimes. We do have to participate and that’s the big mission of our show is to help people understand what is currently happening, what has happened, and why we need to be active participants.
I think that’s right on, Claire.
Let’s talk about hunger and food insecurity. The thing that Nichole and I would love to start with is understanding the language around how we talk about people who are hungry and starvation. We think language is important to help us in the way we understand something. Can you help us outline this? It sounds like right now, what we hear a lot about is food insecurity. Is that a newer term that people are using to talk about this issue?
My research for the book that I’m working on, hunger in America, focuses largely on the mid-’60s to the late ’70s. Food security wasn’t a term then. Food security was a term that developed in the Clinton administration in the early ’90s. People with a history of working on food issues and a new part of government focused specifically on food issues wanted to come up with an objective measurement.
Hunger is not something that you can objectively measure. It’s a different kind of term. It does other work. They wanted to have an objective measurement, a way to count. Food insecurity is how many months in a particular household was their insufficient food. They come up with statistics and they look at them from different perspectives like region, state, or factors like race for instance.
We can look at that. It’s a different language than in the ’60s. Also, I would comment on two things on that. I personally think that it’s very important and I’ve talked to people who help create that term and that we’re looking over some years for how are we going to objectively measure this so we can fight about it. One is that it doesn’t explain why and doesn’t have any politics. It also separates health and access to food.
When I talked to one of the people who helped come up with that term, he explained that in terms of the way our government is organized, it’s complicated because food programs are all under the United States Department of Agriculture and health is under Health and Human Services. I’m really concerned because in the ’70s and ’70s, what moved people was that health and hunger were right together. It was not only physical health but also mental health in the sense of brain development. Could people learn? Could people become good citizens? It’s those questions.
Having said that about food security and that coming from the ’90s, to go back, the terms that I’ve found in my research are starvation, hunger, and malnutrition. They have different histories and different valances and meanings to people. I think that hunger would have been a primary term in the 1930s as well as during the depression, but then malnutrition also was important at the time for physical development.
The school lunch program came out of finding out how many people were malnourished or undernourished and couldn’t participate as GIs during the war. Up to the ’60s, the first word used by activists whose communities were experiencing a real lack of access to nutritious food was sustaining well-being.
Can I ask a quick question, though, because I’m now having this thought now that I understand this a little bit better? Food insecurity is used to measure how much food a family has. Are they talking about nutritious food or just about food? It’s not categorizing what kind of food it is.
My understanding is that it’s the amounts of food. Does your cupboard have food in it or not?
I want to jump into this before we move past. I know we’re in the ’90s and then we’re going to go back, but my impressions as a layperson who’s learning about all this stuff is that terminology, food security/food insecurity feels very distant. There’s something about it to me that doesn’t feel very personal or not very moving. I think that’s interesting to think about the way that we think about it.
However, what I’m getting at is don’t think about it these days. I think it has something to do with that distant term that is sort of the thing to describe this problem. I want to point out how important language is and I can feel the effect I think it’s had on me and my lack of thought about the urgency of this particular issue.
I think that’s an excellent point and I know, in part, you must be doing your show because of the invisibility of a real crisis again in America. There is a distance in those statistics. As I said, it doesn’t get at the why and there’s a distance from personal experience and what people are contending with. It might be that you’d like me to develop this more later, but it also doesn’t deal with the ideological developments since the 1970s that, bit by bit, have made people less sympathetic.
There was a slice of time when a lot of Americans were very concerned that there could be hunger in this country, having been raised to think that this was an exceptional country and hunger was in other countries and that we were supposed to send them food. To discover that here and the attention to that and the narratives about that were to humanize people and to say, “These are other citizens,” and they focused a lot on children.
Since then there’s been a lot of ideology that makes people unsympathetic unless that’s brought to their attention. People are lazy or whatnot. I think that going forward, and that to fight over these issues, it has to bring that into account. We need to hear voices and look at that history and be aware of it.
The thing I’m thinking about, and we were learning about this in our discussion with Celia Cole, the CEO of Feeding Texas is that one in eight Texans is food insecure, which is a lot. It’s staggering. I do a lot of work in my local school district in Del Valle ISD. The student body is 91% economically disadvantaged. I was like, “That is an incredible amount, yet it feels invisible.” I see these kids going to school with my son and I don’t see what I guess I would consider malnutrition or starvation.
It feels like, as Nichole’s saying, “Is it there? Is this a problem?” I’m curious why that’s the case, but from your perspective, can you tell us about some of these historical moments where hunger was discovered and where people were awoken to the crisis that existed and maybe still exists in this country?
I want to comment on what you said before because I think that something cracked open in terms of visibility with COVID, with the pandemic. It was a big deal that the school lunch program would continue to provide lunches so that people could come and pick them up. She mentioned that oftentimes parents or other people in the family that might be helpful to them as well and this is true when there’s so much focus on children. We might not realize that parents might tighten their belts so that their kids can eat. I think that with COVID, people who were having rough experiences including people of color and working-class people, that pressure open step up a little bit so that people began to see. This is a time to act.
It didn’t come from above. It didn’t come from politicians. When John Kennedy was running for president and went to West Virginia, he saw all these people who were subsisting on supplemental commodities, which were poor nutrition and never enough. He’s the one who piloted the food stamps program, which is now called SNAP and is a little bit different. Yes, President Johnson, whose mission was the war on poverty, was what he most wanted to be known for. It was under him that the food stamps program as an alternative to supplemental commodities or nothing became legislation right after the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.
That’s all true. It’s also true that a senate subcommittee went to Mississippi and observed dire hunger and obvious malnutrition. By obvious, I mean the physical signs that we usually associate with other places, such as Kwashiorkor, visible through the extended bellies of children. Witnessing some of that and the sores on children or thinning hair, and those kinds of signs of malnutrition. However, the reason that the senators were there, is that this is missed. This was in the area of the Voting Rights movement and the area that also there was a labor movement for higher daily wages for people who were picking cotton.
They were the reasons that these senators even came to Mississippi. What was happening there was there were supplemental commodities or nothing or food stamps. At the time, in the USDA Federal Food Programs, counties could choose nothing or supplemental commodities or food stamps. Food stamps, everyone had to pay for. It took up until the late 1970s for those prices to disappear.
If someone was bereft and had no work and money, they absolutely could not pay the month ahead fees, even if that was $5. It was being consigned to hunger and people were worried about their children. What was happening is that with them bringing attention, the supervisors from counties who might also be planters were saying, “We’re going to implement the food stamp program.”
There was increasing unemployment in the area because of the mechanization of cotton. These newly voting African-Americans were saying meaning to vote people out of office and perceived this as a punishment. “If you’re not employed by us anymore and now you’re voting, we want you to leave the state.” There was a struggle and they used the word starvation.
As I mentioned to you when we talked, it wasn’t only a physical question or something that happened. It was the nominalization of a verb. That means to take the verb to starve and turn it into a noun which is starvation. In other words, it’s a process and they saw it as something being done to them. It was never a natural thing like, “We have a drought. We have no food.”
Starvation was their language and what happened is that when this Senate subcommittee came back and they had to present this to Congress, it had people like Bobby Kennedy, most famously in this committee. They used the term hunger verging on starvation to present that. There were a lot of hullabaloos about that and denials by Mississippi Senators and Congressmen. There were a lot of different kinds of investigations and media productions.
For instance, there was this backing up to hunger as something that was depoliticized and was very humanizing. People could identify with hunger even if they hadn’t experienced long-term hunger and they could worry about their children. That could be my child. For instance, this CBS broadcast documentary started out as Hunger, American-style, that was going to be the name. By the time it was shown in May of 1968, almost a year after this discovery by the senators, it was called Hunger in America.
Starvation and hunger continued to be used and then malnutrition. As these senators from Mississippi and elsewhere were denying that it was a problem that six million people or households were going without enough food, the first people to go and help document that was this group of activist doctors. They went down to Mississippi and did a survey. They documented the signs and symptoms of severe malnutrition and could identify then what was causing it.
Their focus on malnutrition was both physical. It is what was happening to children’s bodies and the impact on brain development. I can go into that more if you’d like. Maybe we’ll talk about the beginnings of WIC. That was the question of whether these students could learn in school and become normal citizens. There you have hunger, malnutrition, and starvation. Political, not political, but all experiential that people could relate to and all connected to inadequate food with health. It would be food stamps or supplemental commodities.
Laurie, it would be wonderful if you could talk to us about the supplemental commodities program.
It’s very important to this history and as a reminder that I always need to keep in mind that at the point where this crisis became visible to a much larger audience in around ’67 and ’68, there was this choice in counties and cities of supplemental commodities or food stamps or nothing. There were a whole lot of counties with nothing and no backup at all. It’s something that is hard to imagine at this point, though. Perhaps we should imagine that things could go there. There were those three.
Supplemental commodities, whereas food stamps became a program in 1964, surplus commodities go all the way back to the 1930s and are not about hunger. We know that during the Depression, the stock market crashed and in agriculture, there was this glut of wheat and other commodities. To keep American prices up, the government asked farmers to produce less, but they also bought commodities from growers. They used those commodities to then distribute them for free to people in need. That was free, but since it was surplus commodities, it definitely was not nutritious food, meat, or even if one is a vegetarian, we have so many options for protein, but they did not. Meat is a very concentrated form of protein.
It’s not intensively farm vegetables. It was more like wheat, rice, lard, and sugar. These major commodities would be processed into flour or whatnot and distributed at a distribution point where people would come and get those. However, because they didn’t have that, they had calories, but they didn’t have nutrition.
That had dire consequences, particularly for children. Surplus commodities did that and they ran out. This was affecting all kinds of groups. You probably know that Hunger in America’s CBS broadcast focused on poor White people, Native Americans, African-Americans, and Mexican-Americans. This had major consequences.
Let me know if I’m understanding this correctly. In the 1930s, there was the Surplus Commodities Program, I guess you could call it. If folks needed food, they could access that food if it was a part of their county government. Time goes on and then we start to see the pilot program of food stamps in the 1960s. Is that right?
In the very beginning, Kennedy does that for just a small number of counties.
It wasn’t until later in the ’60s that the public had the attention that surplus commodities and this beginning of food stamps were not enough to help provide nutritious foods for people. Is that the timeline?
It was a horrible choice, but then the surplus commodities meant malnutrition because of a lack of protein and other nutrients. Food stamps might mean no food. It’s not even calories.
It’s because, in the beginning, you had to pay for food stamps.
That could lead to marasmus, which is the most deadly form of malnutrition.
Nichole and I both watch Hunger in America. It was a shocking documentary and its bluntness about the problem. I can see how it shook Americans to reckon with what we have here in this country. Was that a pivotal turning point, that piece of media or was that in combination with other things?
There were these investigations going on. For instance, in the summer of 1967, there was a group organized called the Citizens Board of Inquiry on Hunger and Malnutrition in the United States. There had been publicity when these senators came back and they had these hearings where there was this incredible sparring between the public health people and politicians in Mississippi and then this group that was bringing this to light. There was a lot of media around that.
There were all these investigations going on and media productions based on that. One of the biggest ones was some photo essays by the photographer Al Clayton and Bill Hedgepeth, a writer for Look Magazine. They did this investigation in Mississippi and it was so dramatic. It came out for the Christmas issue of Look Magazine is like Life Magazine. It was a photo-heavy glossy magazine format. It came out for the Christmas issue and had more responses than anything they had ever published.
The letters came to the point that the family that was being focused, they found this family, this girl Teresa Pilgrim that they focused on outside of Yazoo City, Mississippi. The mom, Mrs. Pilgrim, had to write in and ask that they not forward all the mail to her because she couldn’t keep up with responding. That was the biggest thing in ’67 and then CBS, based on the findings of the Citizens Board and their own investigations and traveled to different places and filmed. I got a chance to interview Peter Davis, a co-producer of that film, and the producer of Hearts and Minds, a famous documentary about the Vietnam War. He explained what it was like to go to different places.
They went to the West side of San Antonio, which was Mexican-Americans. It was a very poor neighborhood. This priest Ralph Ruiz was living in the community and helping people. He was helping to bring attention. He’s in that film. They went to a Navajo reservation. They didn’t want to go to Appalachia or Mississippi, which were synonymous with hunger. They wanted to go to other places that were in the South. It was an area in Virginia and they were looking at people who had been tenant farmers and now we’re out of work, the poor Whites.
They then went to Hale County in Alabama. People were destitute because of this mechanization and scared of what would happen if they spoke out. They went to those areas and filmed. The film is so compelling and it is very up close and personal. They do these interviews and the camera zooms in to the point where you’re looking into the eyes and looking at the bodies and the feelings.
A couple of teenagers talked about how ashamed they were. There was a boy named Charles in Hill County who talked about going to school. They had school lunches, but you had to pay for them. There was no free lunch. His parents couldn’t have lunch. He would have peas or beans for breakfast. He talks about how he would have to sit there while other children ate their lunches. He was asked, “How did you feel about that?” He said he was ashamed.
That led to an utter flood again of letters that went to the congressman and to CBS. They said that it was more reaction than they had ever gotten for a documentary like that. I think that people use the word shock all the time. I think, at the time, it was absolutely a shock because they had associated hunger with India or parts of Africa or Central America.
They had seen that perhaps on the news and news shows and always understood that we were free of that. It was a shock to see the conditions, but that human feeling and like, “This could be my child,” stirred people up. I should say that it wasn’t a shock to poor people. We’re talking about people that did have enough to eat and who were the targeted audience for these shows to get people riled up.
Before we move on, it would be a good point to talk about WIC and some of the programs that we did get because of that public outcry. Nichole, what are some of your thoughts because you watched it?
I did, but I had to watch it in bits. It was a rough watch, but I also felt it was necessary. For folks reading, it is available on the CBSs website. It was a CBS production. I was surprised by how frankly hard-hitting it was. I thought Charles Kuralt was very direct about what the issues were. They talked straight on about the supplemental commodities program and how it fell short. I understand that it was never meant to address hunger anyway, but they explained it well.
They also got into the nitty-gritty bits about food stamps. Showing the woman in Alabama who was talking about how she couldn’t afford food stamps, there was no way that she could have two weeks’ worth of money to purchase them, much less a month, was compelling. For folks who want to understand on a real ground level what we’re talking about, that documentary will bring it home. It is incredibly difficult to watch. I’m torn because I think it’s so important to see what we’re talking about.
I know that this was 1968, but within the first few minutes, they show the death of a baby. It’s a hard thing to watch but also necessary. What I’m torn about is that while I think it’s necessary, I wonder about the lines of showing the truth but also not violating people’s dignity. There’s a lot for me that I’m still parsing through because I feel like we need an updated version to understand what this is like now for people. However, I also think there are things that are said and done within the context of a 1968 documentary that I don’t know we would do anymore.
I have a lot of thoughts about it and I think it’s important. We could use some updating that contextualizes what hunger is like now. At the same time, I also want to be respectful and mindful about people getting to live with dignity. I respected your writing, Laurie, where you always emphasized the connection between activism and self-determination and brought light to these issues. Maybe that would be a window and a way to update what hunger looks like now if it could be told through the eyes of people experiencing it in their voices and how they would want to be presented. That’s what I want to say.
Let me describe a little bit what people will see. Back then, you didn’t bring your phone or a video camera. They had big heavy equipment that they had to bring to places. In Hale County, it was particularly hard too. This is where Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was also the photographs by James Agee and Walker Evans. The text and photographs were from there from the very early ’40s, if I’m not mistaken and they spent time with people. They didn’t only come in for a day and film people like you are nothing. “You are just an object for our cameras.” That’s something that I got the sense of from Peter Davis.
I understand what you’re saying. They go into people’s houses and I’m not sure that would happen these days. I think there’s another side to it that needs to be remembered without necessarily saying, “We should do this now,” which is that the way that the crew found places to go was because there was activism. It’s not at all in the film. I think it didn’t fit the narrative they wanted to put out there of, “We need to go help people.”
For instance, in San Antonio, in my research, I found out that these hearings had taken place. Father Ruiz, who was involved with this activism with people who were welfare rights activists and other poor people’s activism and Chicano people, went to a hearing organized by the Citizens Board and spoke out. When they were looking for whom to film, they went to this group and Father Ruiz brought people to this hearing. The hearing transcripts are available. You can see that some of the questions were just, “What is in your cupboard today? What did you have for dinner last night?
However, people wanted to express their situation and they talked particularly about how demeaned they were. They were so indignant no matter where they were about how they were treated by welfare, by social workers, or by whatever the powers that be that they were so disrespected. Here they are speaking and seen in very different ways, so one respects them and I think it’s important.
Film theory usually will see people like that as victims, but I think it’s important to see that they wanted to be part. They were volunteering because they wanted people to know and to do something about it because they did not have the power to do something about it. This was part of their activism. Several years ago, I started working with someone who was on a humanities media project at UT. This didn’t come through, but I had begun working with him on a documentary for today that would bring history, like going to Yazoo City. Also, finding out what was going on there in relationship to that history.
Some of the people that I talked to were very helpful and were referring me to others. I felt that attention should come to that. I don’t think that they would have invited people into their houses. I think that they would have seen that as crossing a threshold that would’ve been embarrassing to them. “Let’s look at the pitiful inside of this house.” I think there’s a more complicated way of understanding these.
There was a documentary done a number of years ago called A Place at the Table. It wasn’t moving in the same way. I wonder if it’s only that there are so much media out there now. It focused a lot on kids because of the recession then and the hardships that people were going through. There was a lot of focus on these would-be normal people if it weren’t for this recession and what’s happening to people. It wasn’t as effective, unfortunately.
Thank you for pointing that out and tying in the activism part of it because now, I feel very recovered. I don’t feel as emotionally distraught because you reminded me that visibility is such an important part of any movement. Also, people were expressing maybe their agency by allowing themselves to be seen, and that was an important part of the movement. Thank you for helping me to get that.
Also, because of this ideology that’s so disrespecting, for instance, toward obesity. We talk of, “You shouldn’t get benefits because of obesity.” Obesity results from poor nutrition, only having access to carbs, and the inability to afford fresh vegetables or whatever. There are a lot of maligned people experiencing these things. To be interviewing people and to be listening to them, there’s something important about that.
I want to transition a little bit and this is connected to what we’re discussing, Laurie, but you shared a chapter with us. The chapter is called Poor Mothers and the War on Poverty. Can you remind me what this is from?
I think it’s Saving Babies for Two Dimes a Day. It was right on what was going on during the War on Poverty. It was a chapter in a book edited by Annelise Orleck and Lisa Hazirjian, authors trying to take a new look at the war on poverty. It’s not only what LBJ did, but looking at it at the community level. It was The War on Poverty: A New Grassroots History. This was a chapter.
It was eye-opening. I learned a lot about a lot, but there’s a line that stuck out that I would like to get your thoughts on. The line was, “The battle against hunger has become a crucible in which activists and poor people, public officials and medical professionals struggle over the meaning of American democracy in the future of US society.” Can you give us your thoughts on that? I know the book you’re working on touches on these elements. Can you talk about this battle of hunger and how it plays into American democracy?
Yeah. Why it was seen as a crisis would be a great title. I forgot about that line. Thanks for bringing that up. In a certain sense, it captures the essence of the book that I’m writing. What journalists said at the time was that hunger had been elevated to the point that by 1969, it was the biggest domestic issue. In parallel with Vietnam as a foreign policy issue, that’s how big it was. There was a lot of media coverage. However, in people writing in, a lot of people were saying, “What is America if we can’t take care of our poor people?”What is America if we can't take care of our poor people? Click To Tweet
They were questioning the very foundations of America and, in some cases, of capitalism. Why would the people working so hard not necessarily be able to have enough food and let children die? The question of, “Who has a voice, who makes policy and what is this nation founded on? Do we have equality and justice for all?” It was symbolic of much more and I think that’s why it drove people. I am doubtful about the meaning of that right now and what the test of democracy is, for instance. What happened on January 6th, 2021 is much more of what we’re hearing about, but it was seen as a real crisis that opened up these discussions.
We don’t want to take up too much more of your time, but as we’re wrapping up, as a historian, as someone who was once a community organizer, what have you seen historically and what do you think would be good programs for systemic change to help us address hunger? It’s still with us. I don’t even know. Is it still as bad as it was? It comes back to that visibility and I feel like I have such ignorance in this area, but I know that 1 in 8 Texans is food insecure. There’s definitely a high need.
First of all, if I could back up historically a little bit, I want to say that because of activism at a lot of different levels. At the grassroots, in medical fields where they did a lot of research and had to prove at that time that intelligence and brain development in infants and young children were connected to nutrition and not to some inherent issues of race. The doctors were involved in proving that and testified to Congress about that.
People were active on a lot of different levels and because of this persistence, a lot was won. Food stamps had to be an option in every county in the United States on a set level. It wasn’t decided by anyone local. It couldn’t be connected to respect or disrespect. Everybody who was at a certain level of the poverty line or some bit over the poverty line and not hired was able to get food stamps and they were able to get them for free.People were active on a lot of different levels and because of persistence, a lot was won. Click To Tweet
Those were huge developments and it was made into the most recent entitlement program, which is often in Congress by conservatives. It’s dissed. The idea of an entitlement program, you feel entitled, but what it meant was that everyone who is at this level is entitled to have access to food stamps. Again, what is SNAP? There are limitations on SNAP now. That was a huge achievement.
Also, the WIC program, the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, never existed before. It came out at the grassroots, through activism by doctors and finally, by Senate Committee for Nutrition and Human Needs, which George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey headed was part of it. It was based on using coupons to get supplemental food for pregnant and postnatal women, infants, and young children before school age. It had a huge impact on infant mortality rates.
That can’t be overlooked like the achievements. Now, I will say that they weren’t quite what grassroots activists wanted because they didn’t want to have to necessarily like stand in line but to get them. The term set by the government, they thought that they were the ones that knew what nutrition was needed and, just like the money, be able to use it as they saw fit. There were stipulations put in the legislation that shocked me and showed me how ideological this whole was.
A concern, for instance, is that coupons might be traded for drugs. There’s this layer of ideology from the 1970s that was new at the time. There were all these achievements. Part of what we need to do now is to preserve those achievements because there are threats. In the last decade or a little more than a decade, there were proposals when republicans were in control of the house to, for instance, take food stamps and put caps on how much estate could use the money for food stamps or the number of people that could be served.
They put caps on that or block grant food programs with other kinds of human services so that a state would get a certain amount of money. It would then be up to that state on how they use the money, which could lead to saying, “We’re not doing food stamps because we’d rather do this.” Those are real threats. The fighting needs to be both to preserve and also to expand. The whole basis of your show is to make this visible or audible, perhaps. This is so important.
There are a lot of projects to deal with food security and to eliminate food deserts where people will have to pay more at small stores because there’s no grocery store and grocery stores will specifically move out of certain areas on purpose. We’ve known about that for a long time. As I said before, I think the struggle needs to occur on different levels and in ways that are not lobbying and not giving out food.
Those are absolutely crucial, but also through hearing people’s voices and dealing with the ideology that makes us unsympathetic or ignoring that. Black Lives Matter did a lot to bring visibility to issues of respect. It was part of the essence of that movement. There’s so much going on. There are so many people who care and a lot of projects going on, but I think that history can be very helpful in thinking about how the struggles now might be differently oriented.
Nichole, what are some thoughts? I’m sure there are lots, but you can pick one.
I think that maybe I’m going to let this stand on its own and not put my major commentary on top. I have some thoughts that I think Claire, when you and I talk about what mini episode we do that accompanies this. I have some things that I need to own up to and address. I will get there. I’m recognizing a lot of assumptions I have about poverty and the visibility of it. It’s a little confronting. I will say I’m struggling a little bit, but that’s good.
It’s good to hear that. I want to say that these moments, Nichole, are so important. We can even be hearing about stuff and all of a sudden, something that’s very personally felt can open things up and have one see things differently. Things like Hunger in America were that moment for a lot of people. I think that even with poverty, we can look at statistics, but then there’s so much ideology around that.
We appreciate you sharing your knowledge with us and helping us understand this issue more. I feel like one of your students. It’s like, “There’s so much I didn’t know and I want to continue to learn,” because, as you’re saying, it stacks on one another in a way I didn’t realize, and I love it. It’s fascinating to me to connect some dots in my mind. To wrap up, we’re going to do our Attention Mentions, where we mention something that has our attention. It can lighten up the mood or it can be a sober recommendation. There is no judgment. We love them all. Laurie, you were sharing yours at the beginning, and it’s one that I love as well. Tell us about your attention mention.
This is a new phrase for me. Before the show, you explained to me what that means, and right away, I mentioned the podcast or radio program, the Hidden Brain, which I love. I’m so fascinated and I love that there’s a science attached to issues that are important to us. Yes, I am a follower or listener.
I want to try to quickly find this quote from the most recent episode because I also follow Hidden Brain. In the most recent episode, the host interviews this man Todd Kashdan. He’s a psychologist and they talk about dealing with pain and how pain is necessary for our growth. Not like paying for pain’s sake, but to push through that discomfort. He said it might not feel good, but it’s going to do good. I was like, “I love that.”
It wasn’t necessarily what I had planned to share, but Laurie, it is something you said. It was a recent episode on Throughline, a podcast that Claire introduced me to. It was the particular episode titled The Whiteness Myth. It’s a great story. It’s an immigrant’s story who was petitioning to become a citizen and the philosophy around whiteness that he used to try to gain his citizenship. They do what they do on Throughline, which is even looking at the history of the myth of whiteness. It was fascinating and such a great way to tell that particular story.
That’s important and I’m going to have to listen to that because it’s very cogent to the kind of history that I teach. It matters a lot to the policies. Even differential experiences during World War II between African-Americans and Mexican-Americans who were at the time categorized as White, so they weren’t put in segregated units and were part of fighting and not only supplies, kitchen duty, and things like that.
To round it out, I will mention the show I’m watching on Hulu called The Parent Test. At first, I was like, “I don’t know about this show,” but it’s really good and interesting. They have twelve different families with twelve different parroting styles. They do these challenges to see how the parents and the kids do in these challenges. You would think with it being a test, it would be judgmental and like, “Your way’s bad and this way’s better.”
It highlights the different things we’re imparting to our kids when we teach with these different parenting styles. It’s been great. I am improving from watching the show by emphasizing safety with my children like, “Don’t answer the door. Let mama do that.” It’s like, “These are important lessons to make sure I’m imparting to my children.” I’m learning some stuff, too, so check out the show.
You say to them, “But pain is good.”
“If it’s for good.”
Thank you so much. This feels like an important conversation and I’m very appreciative of the attention that you’re giving to this issue.
Thank you for your super valuable time.
Hopefully, we’ve demystified some little portion of Texas politics and we hope that you’ll do more with us. Let’s join together and do more. We hope you’ll let us know what is working and we hope you’ll join us next week. Thanks, everybody, and have a good one.
- Dr. Laurie Green
- Hunger Games. Who is Winning in Our Broken System?
- Feeding Texas
- Hunger in America
- The War on Poverty: A New Grassroots History
- Hidden Brain
- Todd Kashdan –episode on Hidden Brain podcast
- The Whiteness Myth –episode on Throughline podcast
- The Parent Test