February 9, 2014
We’re sitting underneath a ton of snow and cold weather here in Michigan this February. It’s a good idea to fill up the calendar with annual events to tick off during the long wait for Spring. Punxsutawny Phil, the wonderfully-fantastic excrescent bowl, the North Michigan Small Farm Conference that we talked about last week, Valentine’s Day, President’s Day, the UM-MSU home and away basketball series (we may forget about that one this year)… And for three years in a row now, Everybody Eats. I’ve blogged about Everybody Eats for the two previous Februaries, so we wouldn’t want to break the streak in 2014, would we?
This confab of locals assembles to gab about food issues as they pertain to the Cap City and its environs. And every once in moment, some philosophical question comes up. Like, for instance, how would we define ‘food insecure’? The discussion in one of the sessions I attended drifted toward the idea that we should understand the idea on a spectrum: At one end, you are food insecure when you or someone in your household has to miss a meal because you can’t pay for it. Note that this is the “extremely insecure” end for people in the United States. Things can get much more extreme, as when a household member misses enough meals to have growth and development affected, or when they succumb to one of the diseases of hunger. But this is Everybody Eats in Lansing, MI, so let’s not let the global hunger point distract us from the topics that were (quite legitimately) the main thrust of conversation down at the United Missionary Baptist Church yesterday.
But what’s the other end of the spectrum? Folks in the room struggled a bit with this question. Randy Bell from MSU Extension had thrown up a figure showing that 20% of the Lansing population is food insecure. The national figure is 1 in 6. If people are calculating statistics like that, there must be something that defines the cut-off point where you are no longer “food insecure”, right?
And there is. To speak with utter unvarnished truth, the criterion is not based on what happens to people or the conditions in which they live. It’s based on what they report to people who do surveys. While I fully endorse surveys and I appreciate the need to do them, I also think that we put ourselves into peril by an inability to distinguish between reality and what people say about it. That’s an ontological point, by the way (see last week’s blog). So to clarify, you are defined as having “low food insecurity” if you tell the sociologist who calls you up on the phone that you have experienced reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet, but you don’t get pushed into the “high food security” category until you tell them that you’re eating patterns have actually been disrupted (e.g. you’re missing meals—maybe eating less so your kids don’t have to).
My point would be that in fact many more than 1 in 6 of us have experienced “reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet” on numerous occasions during the last year. Heck, speaking for my own self alone, I experience reduced quality, variety and desirability of diet once or twice every week, mainly because there’s no Claire’s Cornercopia or Flying Star Café in the neighborhood for me to frequent for lunch. I would probably be ashamed to complain about that to an official survey researcher, but before you bawl me out for being an elitist, I’m telling you that I’m serious. If you are compromising your diet in order to save money or time, you are experiencing some degree of food security, no matter what you are inclined to tell the sociologist who calls you up on the phone to compile an objective and unbiased measurement of food security in the You Ess of Ay.
So Diane’s open space group at Everybody Eats was surfacing ideas about how to combat this problem. Her idea: everyone needs a crock pot. Then they could eat some of those good Michigan grown beans instead of making a dash to Wendy’s. Some big rich venture capitalist needs to create a fund for donating crock pots to all the people who don’t have them, she says. I’m not sure it solves my problem. I need a big rich venture capitalist to open up a Flying Star Café in East Lansing. But you get the picture.
You may think it’s a crock, but I’m sticking with it.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University