by Frederick Kaufman
It’s Food Day, so let’s put Paul Ryan’s soup kitchen stunt aside for the moment and take a serious look at what a Romney/Ryan budget might mean for the future of eating. Today, the number of Americans receiving food stamps has reached nearly 15 percent of the population, and 17 million American households experience hunger. Despite such indications of growing domestic food insecurity, Paul Ryan has proposed a $133 billion cut to nutrition assistance, an evisceration that would add 10 million more Americans to the 50 million who already are missing meals.
Those who watch the grain and livestock markets most closely — not the politicians, but the bankers, the traders, and the hedge fund managers — predict that over the next decade the price of food will double. What would happen if Ryan and Romney slash food support at the same time as food prices fly beyond the beyond?
Imagine an America that looks something like Egypt, a country where the average consumer pays 40% of a weekly paycheck on food; imagine an America that looks like Tunisia, where food vendors caught in the zero-sum game of spiking prices go broke and immolate themselves. Imagine an America where cops stand outside Detroit grocery stores and Trader Joe’s sets a limit of one bag of rice per customer. Incredibly enough, there’s no need to imagine these last two scenarios, as both came to pass in 2008. Of course, Paul Ryan has conveniently forgotten the fact that when food prices tripled from 2002 to 2012 and riots roiled more than 60 countries, a food riot erupted in his his own home state, in downtown Milwaukee.
Republicans may hail Ryan as an intellectual, but he has not read his history, where the food lesson is clear: Rising food prices in the absence of social support equals social unrest on a massive scale. The Romans understood bread and circus. Even Marie Antoinette understood the benefits of cake. If food prices continue to rise, if milk hits 10 dollars a gallon and hamburger 20 dollars a pound, and at this critical moment Ryan and Romney gut the one buffer between food security and insecurity, more than one in five Americans will find themselves hungry. The rest of us will find ourselves angry. And when middle class citizens get angry enough to take to the street, regime change happens.
There are simple ways to blunt the social unrest and anger that invariably follow rising food prices. The answer is not a soup kitchen (although soup kitchens can do a great deal of good). Social security and food stamps are the institutional supports that food experts at the United Nations and the World Food Program promote across the developing world.
Still, Ryan persists and pretends — even as his anti-food strategy subverts the core elements of responsible governance. In this age of food inflation, Ryan’s proposal to cut food stamps is worse than heartless and stupid. A stranglehold on food support defines a clear and present threat to our national security. Such cuts would undermine America with a brutal efficiency and impact beyond Al Quaeda’s wildest dreams.
Of course, Paul Ryan is no fool. He hogs whatever supplemental food assistance heads his own way in the form of dairy subsidies for Wisconsin. When it comes to his personal ambitions, Ryan knows food cannot be separated from political power.
Food Day is a good time to remind ourselves that people do not starve because there is not enough food. Farmers produce more than twice the amount of food needed to feed the planet’s population. So why do people go hungry? People go hungry because they cannot afford the price of food.
Note to Paul Ryan: That’s why there are food stamps.
Frederick Kaufman is the author of “BET THE FARM: How Food Stopped Being Food.” He will be discussing Ryan budget cuts to food stamps and more at a Twitter town hall #FoodDayChat from 3:00-4:00 EST today.