The White House hunger conference last week was a step in the right direction but missed a chance to address the systemic causes and to expand the “right to food”, according to a United Nations hunger expert.
Policymakers should be focusing on those causes if they want to solve hunger, said Michael Fakhri, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food. Racism, corporate control and poverty contribute heavily to hunger, he said.
“They don’t talk about the [roots of the] problem,” said Fakhri, also a University of Oregon law professor. “Structural inequality is the underlying cause of hunger.”
Lawmakers and experts convened at last week’s White House conference to consider policies that would reduce hunger and encourage healthy eating. A national strategy released by Joe Biden focused on five “pillars”: food access and affordability, nutrition, food education, exercise and research.
At least one in 10 US households lack consistent access to food, the White House noted, and health problems tied to unhealthy eating – obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, for example – have risen dramatically in recent years.
Fakhri and others have argued for a “right to food” that would codify access to healthy options. That right, Fakhri said, could be adopted by jurisdictions as local as a university or by Congress.
Maine voters last year approved a constitutional amendment that guarantees a “natural, inherent and unalienable right” to food – the first state to do so. Bipartisan cooperation in that state showed even a body as politically polarized as Congress could pass a right to food, Fakhri said.
“People realized the only way we’re going to create an equitable food system is if we figure out a way to share resources and work together,” he said. “The success of Maine is that it shows people the right to food can create new political discussions that can work around the deadlock in the American political system.”
Maine’s legislation puts forward the notion that people have the right to produce food locally without interference as long as they do so legally. Critics argue it could increase problems around food safety, animal welfare and the environment while supporters say it empowers communities and reduces the dominance of corporations.
The concept has gained momentum in the US and abroad. Boston’s mayor, Michelle Wu, has made food access a major goal, while Scotland and Brazil have made recent strides toward a right to food. Morgantown, West Virginia, also passed a right to food resolution last year and the states of Illinois and Florida have guaranteed a right to garden on private property.
Congress should keep an eye on those state and local reforms, Fakhri said. The right to food, he noted, comes in different forms, most of which would fight hunger.
“Any jurisdiction could decide what the right to food means for their community,” he said. “Time and time again the problem is governments that don’t listen to their people. The people are speaking, the people are organizing, the people are mobilizing. Now the challenge is for governments to listen to their people.”
State action in particular would help push Congress to adopt a national right to food, said Noreen Springstead, executive director of WhyHunger, a non-profit organization that advocates for healthy food access. The federal government has failed to protect basic human rights by largely ignoring food access, she said, and the recent White House summit did little to change that.
“When the dominant narrative [over] the past 50 years has been food-banking us out of hunger, that does not prioritize human dignity and human rights,” Springstead said. “To me, it’s un-American for one person to go hungry.”
Both Fakhri and Springstead hailed many of the White House ideas as essential, such as reducing malnutrition among people of color and in rural communities. But they noted the absence of important reforms that would curb the inequity that causes hunger, such as a permanent child tax credit or a higher federal minimum wage.
And Fakhri questioned Biden’s plan to partly fund his initiatives with money from corporations. Monopolization in the food industry and the marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks have harmed millions, he said.
“They caused the problem in the first place,” he said. “It’s like asking someone who set the house on fire in the first place to help put it out.”