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PORTSIDE  April 2011, Week 1

PORTSIDE April 2011, Week 1

Subject:

Stating the Obvious: Hunger Is a Disease

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Stating the Obvious: Hunger Is a Disease
Mark Bittman
New York Times
March 31, 2011
http://bittman.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/31/stating-the-obvious-hunger-is-a-disease/

Hunger is a disease; starvation is its extreme form.
Hunger can lead to starvation; starvation to death.
Obvious, no?

Some symptoms of hunger I'm experiencing: sleeplessness;
irritability (also occasional patience and gentleness,
obviously not bad things, but see "weakness"); stomach
cramping and other gastrointestinal symptoms; general
achiness; headache; loss of cognition (that is, I seem
stupider than usual, except for when I feel more
insightful, insightfulness that may be delusional);
hyperosmia (fancy word for "extremely sensitive to
smells" - both good and bad); exhaustion (see
"sleeplessness"); weakness; distraction (extreme, not
like checking your e-mail every minute); distraction
(did I say that?); lethargy; weight loss (I know, you're
envious, but obviously this can go too far). And a
different kind of distraction: the near-constant thought
of food.

I am on my fourth - and last! - day of fasting, and I'm
very much aware of all of this. I have those symptoms.
I'm tired today; the thing got different. Walking down
the street I'm slower than everyone else, and
breathless. (Imagine working, or looking for work, in
this state.) It's no longer a game, although as I said
in my post yesterday, I know that I'll eat my fill
tomorrow. I'm truly hungry; I'm not starving.

True hunger is not just a feeling, but an insufficient
intake of energy (calories) and nutrients. All obvious.
Hunger is not "I need something to eat," but a disease,
or at least the precursor to the disease starvation. It
has a cure and a cause. The cure, as we know, is
nutritious food. The cause, as we know, is a lack of
same. Obvious.

What causes the lack? Imprisonment, torture, being
stranded on a desert island, anorexia, crop failure .
and both a lack of aid and bad distribution of
nutrients. Some (or much) of both of these last two stem
from unregulated capitalism and greed. Bad distribution
is causing roughly 15 percent of the world to be
overweight and 15 percent of the world to be hungry. The
amount of grain being fed to industrially raised
livestock in the United States alone is enough to
alleviate much if not all of world hunger.

The cost to the United States of extending the Bush tax
cuts for the wealthy for one year - this is only one
example, there are dozens of others - is $42 billion;
the U.N.'s World Food Program spent $1.25 billion last
year. The estimated cost of obesity-related diseases in
the United States alone is $150 billion annually; at
least some of that money could be saved by reducing the
consumption of soda and other junk food and industrially
produced meat, all of which cause disease, directly or
indirectly. And the grain that's used to produce all of
that could alleviate hunger. (Ethanol is a whole other
issue, as are diet and health care costs, both of which
I'll get to; not today.) For more on this, see Stuffed
and Starved, the great Raj Patel's book.

I'm ambivalent about our intervention in Libya, but it's
cost us a billion dollars so far. Whatever you think
about our "interventions" in Afghanistan and Iraq, they
have cost us a trillion dollars. The World Food Program
says it can feed a kid a day for a quarter, though
undoubtedly just well enough to ward off starvation. If
you allowed a $1.50 a day for a hungry person - the cost
of a soda, and just above the poverty level, according
to the World Bank - you could feed every one of the
world's starving and hungry for more than two years for
a trillion dollars. Bombs or butter? (Peanut butter,
maybe.)

I'll stop now, and provide what I hope are some
interesting observations and links from my work this
week, a week I'll be grateful to see end; I'm not a
"thank God it's Friday" person, but this week is
different.

Here are some more detailed statistics on global hunger
from the U.N. World Food Program; their estimate that 98
percent of the world's hungry means that to a great
extent the programs designed to prevent or alleviate
hunger in the United States are working. (Why would we
not want that to continue?) The first question on the
U.N.'s Hunger FAQ page is, "Is there a food shortage in
the world?" The answer: "There is enough food in the
world today for everyone to have the nourishment
necessary for a healthy and productive life." This I
discussed a bit above, but it also brings in the issue
of food waste, a topic to be explored at length another
time, and that extends from large-scale production to
our own refrigerators.

Worldwide, much food is supplied by rural smallholder
farmers (who themselves may go hungry). When governments
or corporations buy up or lease huge amounts of land in
developing countries to ensure their future food
security (or, equally likely, simply to make a profit)
the small farmers are put even more at risk. Here's a
site that collects news stories about these land grabs
and their impact.

The 50 million Americans who don't have consistent
access to food are called "food insecure." Here are the
USDA's most recent stats on food insecurity, along with
an older Washington Post article by Charles Lane that
questions the USDA's methodology; it's worth reading.
Food insecurity certainly exists; something like one in
four families runs out of food sometime during the
month. And even if the "real" number is lower, it's
still too much, and it's a good thing that we fight it
with some success.

But food insecurity is not the same thing as hunger.
Bill Abrams, who runs the terrific anti-poverty agency
Trickle Up, was telling me about "the hungry season,"
the time of year in agricultural communities where food
simply runs out; people forage wherever they can,
looking, for example, for rice in anthills. (If my fast
were involuntary I would probably begin foraging today.)
The Times's Nick Kristof has written about hunger - and
charity - brilliantly and extensively, of course.

Finally, some more about voluntary food restriction:
David Beckmann, the wonderful man who got me into this
mess, told me on the phone yesterday that he was
"incredulous" at "how I was doing this without praying."
(I said I did it by working.) And it's true that the
history of fasting is tied closely to religion (and not
so much to the currently trendy "cleansing"). Mark
Oppenheimer wrote recently in The Times about fasting as
a way to get closer to God. (One comment on this:
"vegetable broth and smoothies" may be a diet, but it's
not a fast; a billion people would happily live on
vegetable broth and smoothies. Smoothies!) Here is more
from some of the religious leaders I've been talking to
over the past week. We agree upon this: HR1, the
proposed budget, must be fought.

Note that it's Lent, and soon to be Passover, which
means that many Americans are voluntarily restricting
their diets right now. Longer term, my hope is that
we'll see increasing numbers of people recognizing the
secular benefits not of fasting - which I can tell you
is pretty extreme - but of relaxed food-related self-
discipline, represented by flexitarianism, by the
Meatless Monday campaign, and by my own (perhaps badly
named) crusade for "less-meatarianism", all of which can
have positive effects on the environment, on our
personal health and on world hunger.

For the record, I'm no closer to God now than I was on
Sunday. (Still, I'm thinking of wearing a What Would
Jesus Cut? bracelet.) The closest experience to fasting,
in my life, is running marathons. There is some
spirituality in both but mostly suffering, and you get
out of these things what you expect. I expected to learn
some things, and I have. The most important ones are
affirmations of what I already knew: some of us eat more
(and worse) than we need to. Others eat less (and worse)
than we need to. It will be a struggle to fix this, but
there are solutions, and they're, well, obvious.

___________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
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