(HOST) Summer is a time of abundant fresh food in Vermont, but commentator Jay Craven is reminded that hunger is still a perva- sive problem in our land of plenty.
(CRAVEN) When Chris Foster at the Vermont Food Bank asked me to speak at a recent event to raise hunger awareness, I wasn’t sure what I’d say. Maybe, as a filmmaker, I could talk about how movies portray poverty. But, in fact, they usually don’t. Even the current Depression era film, Cinderella Man, retains a bit of Holly- wood sheen.
Silent films did better, probably because they were made when many Americans didn’t live too much better than the characters on screen. Charlie Chaplin’s tramp is classic – always on the prowl for a hot meal and a dry place to sleep.
John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath remains a powerful narrative that explores multiple dimensions of poverty.
Then I remembered a deeply affecting 60s CBS documentary, Hunger in America, that actually changed national policy. The film paints a devastating portrait of poverty in cities, rural areas and within blocks of the White House, where kids experienced serious health problems from malnutrition.
Johnson Administration officials attacked the film, but people de- manded action. Republicans and Democrats, including Vermont Senators Aiken and Flanders, took up the call. Even Richard Nixon cited the CBS film when he signed new legislation to combat hunger.
As a result, during the 1960s and 70s, America declared war on hunger – and largely won. New initiatives included Food Stamps, School Breakfasts and the WIC program for pregnant and nursing mothers and their young children. Also, meal sites and Meals on Wheels for the elderly. By 1977, people were still poor. But they had food.
Then, during the 1980s, hunger reappeared in America. In 1982, the U. S. Conference of Mayors reported on growing homeless- ness, and it was estimated that 20 million Americans were going hungry.
At a time when the economy dipped and more families were pressed, President Reagan proposed, and a Democratic Congress approved, the most far-reaching cuts in food support in the nation’s history. More than $12 billion was eliminated from school meals and other food programs.
During the 1990s, national prosperity grew, but so did the number of people seeking food assistance, overburdening food banks around the country. According to Federal studies, hunger is now an issue for 30 million people – many of them families that play by the rules and work hard, but at lower and lower wages. It’s estim- ated that 10 percent of Vermonters – including 26,000 children – live with food insecurity.
During the 1960s, with only three television networks, a single broadcast of Hunger in America provoked a national crisis of con- science. With so many more media outlets today, it should be even easier to galvanize national resolve on this vital issue, but so far that hasn’t happened.
$1.1 billion in new cuts are now proposed for the food stamp program. Vermonters would be directly affected. Groups like the Vermont Food Bank make a crucial difference. But a bi-partisan coalition is again needed to oppose these cuts and develop alternatives.
This is Jay Craven of Peacham.
Filmmaker Jay Craven teaches at Marlboro College and directs Kingdom County Productions.