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Raj Patel: In Attacks on Obama, Food Stamps, Newt Gingrich is “Racially Coding Poverty”

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The new documentary “Finding North” premiering here at the Sundance Film Festival exposes how one in every four American children suffers from hunger, despite living in the wealthiest nation in the world, and nearly 30 percent of American families, more than 49 million people, often go without meals. While Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich decries President Obama as “the food stamp president,” author Raj Patel says what is really needed is a conversation about poverty and why the need for food stamps is so high. “It’s true that disproportionately people of color are affected by food insecurity. But what Gingrich is doing, of course, is racially coding poverty by calling President Obama 'the food stamp president,'” Patel said. “He’s invoking these ideas of racialized poverty. Of course, if you look at the people who are on the food stamp program, you see that the majority of them are white and poor.” Patel is author of the popular book, “Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Park City, Utah, home of the Sundance Film Festival, the nation’s largest festival for independent cinema. I’m Amy Goodman. Continuing with our South Carolina Republican primary coverage, we turn now from the wealthy, whose influence on elections has been multiplied by Citizens United, to the poor, who could be greatly impacted by this influence.

Republican contender Newt Gingrich, who won the primary by a double-digit margin, recently said President Obama is too sympathetic to Americans in need of food assistance. Gingrich not only called Obama “the food stamp president” but also defended himself when questioned by Fox News moderator Juan Williams during the South Carolina Republican debate.

JUAN WILLIAMS: And I’ve got to tell you, my email account, my Twitter account, has been inundated with people of all races who are asking if your comments are not intended to belittle the poor and racial minorities. You saw some of this reaction during your visit to a black church in South Carolina. You saw some of this during your visit to a black church in South Carolina, where a woman asked you why you refer to President Obama as “the food stamp president”? It sounds as if you are seeking to belittle people.

NEWT GINGRICH: Well, first of all, Juan, the fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history. Now, I know among the politically correct you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Newt Gingrich during the South Carolina Republican debate.

Well, a new documentary premiering here at the Sundance Film Festival says one in every four American children suffers from hunger, despite living in the wealthiest nation in the world. And nearly 30 percent of American families, more than 49 million people, are what’s called food insecure. That means they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. The documentary is called Finding North, which the filmmakers say is a reference to the nation losing its moral compass.

FOOD-INSECURE MOTHER: I’m struggling so much every day to be able to even feed my kids. Hunger isn’t just someone in Africa that’s real skinny and you can see their ribs. It’s right here in the United States.

JEFF BRIDGES: One in four of our children living in food-insecure homes? It doesn’t—it just doesn’t make any sense at all.

FOOD-INSECURE MOTHER: I used to read pizzeria menus to get rid of my hunger pains, just so I can be able to feed my children.

FOOD-INSECURE CHILD: I struggle a lot. It’s because I’m hungry or my stomach is really hurting.

DR. MARIANA CHILTON: There’s a huge disconnect between the people who are suffering and the people who can do something about it.

REP. JIM McGOVERN: We are the richest, most prosperous nation in the world, and yet we still haven’t found the political will to end hunger.

DR. MARIANA CHILTON: The answer is, focus on the human being.

DR. LARRY BROWN: There’s something wrong when we have all of that knowledge and information, and nobody is doing a damn thing about it.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from the trailer of Finding North, this new documentary on the silent crisis of hunger in America today. It premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City.

Well, for more, we’re joined by one of the people featured in the documentary. He’s Raj Patel, fellow at the Institute for Food and Development Policy, visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for African Studies, has written for the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian and The Observer. And although Raj Patel has worked for the World Bank, WTO and the United Nations, he’s also been tear-gassed on four continents protesting them. He’s author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System. He is also author of The Value of Nothing.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Raj.

RAJ PATEL: It’s great to be here, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s nice to see you here. Talk about Newt Gingrich calling President Obama “the food stamp president.” What does this mean?

RAJ PATEL: Well, what he’s referring to, or what he’s alleging, is that many more people have come onto the food stamp program under the Obama administration than any previous administration. Now, if you look at the numbers, what you see is that under the Bush administration, about 14.7 million people joined the ranks of people on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, what we now call the food stamp program. Under the Obama administration, about 14.2 million people joined that program. So, the numbers are about 444,000 fewer under the Obama administration than under the Bush administration.

AMY GOODMAN: So it’s a lie?

RAJ PATEL: Well, what—the way to spin that is to say—in Gingrich’s favor, is to say much more money has been spent on food assistance under the Obama administration. And that’s true. And that’s important, because if you look at the numbers of hungry people in the United States, people who are food insecure in the United States, it rose from around 35 million people towards the tail end of the Bush administration, to the final year of the Bush administration, where it was nearer 49 million, and then it carried on going up. The trajectory was going up and up and up. And then, as a result of the stimulus package, many more people became entitled to join the food stamp program, and the amount of money that was available for food stamps went up to whopping $130, more or less, per month, so, you know, just over a dollar or so per meal.

So, it’s true to say that more has been spent on food stamps under the Obama administration, but that’s—I mean, we need to be having the conversation about, well, why are so many people on food stamps? And obviously, it’s a result of the recession. It’s a result of poverty in the United States. And I think that we need to have—you know, we need to refocus on that bigger issue, the issue, as you mentioned, of one in four children in the United States being food insecure, the fact that, as Finding North tells us, one in two children in the United States will, at some point in their childhood, be on an assistance program because they are hungry and because they are poor.

AMY GOODMAN: Half of children in the United States?

RAJ PATEL: At some point in their lives.

AMY GOODMAN: Half of children. According to the documentary, 50 million Americans are food insecure, this idea that they don’t know where their next meal—they may not know where their next meal is coming from.

RAJ PATEL: Well, this idea of food insecurity is just—is precisely that. There’s a questionnaire, and one fills that out, and if one hits three of the various of 17, I think, criteria on that panel, then one is classified as being food insecure. And these are questions like, you know, did you skip a meal because you couldn’t afford it? Were there days in the week where your money ran out, and you didn’t know where your food was coming from? That idea of food insecurity is the measure that we have in this country for tracking how it is that people are able to command resources in order to be able to eat for themselves and their families.

And what you’re noticing, systematically, is that there’s a tilt. I mean, we’re seeing—I mean, and Newt Gingrich’s comments are very interesting here. I mean, it’s true that disproportionately people of color are affected by food insecurity. But what Gingrich is doing, of course, is racially coding poverty by calling President Obama “the food stamp president.” He’s invoking these ideas of racialized poverty. Of course, if you look at the people who are on the food stamp program, you see that the majority of them are white and poor. But, you know, what Gingrich is doing is playing the game that he’s played for a very long time of coding poverty as an African-American phenomenon.

AMY GOODMAN: According to Finding North, Mississippi is the state with the highest rate of food insecurity and the highest rate of obesity in the United States. You wrote the book Stuffed and Starved. Explain.

RAJ PATEL: Well, as Dr. Nissen was saying earlier on, I mean, poverty, obesity and food insecurity are of a piece. The fact that you are food insecure, that you don’t know, at some point in a month or in a year, where your next meal is coming from, means that you’re fighting hard to make ends meet. And when we have a food system where you can—you know, a dollar will buy you 447 calories of Coke, but only 16 calories of—from a lettuce—so, you know, you spend a dollar, you only get 16 calories from that lettuce—and you’re trying to fill the bellies of your families, of your family, and particularly when you’re thinking about your children, then it’s not surprising that the kinds of food that you—that one reaches for are the foods that will fill that gap, that will make—you know, that will be filled with empty calories. And that’s why, in the United States, we are the most overweight country on earth.

AMY GOODMAN: In Finding North, this point that is made, from 1980, the cost of fruit and vegetables has gone up 40 percent, while during the same period the cost of processed food has gone down by 40 percent. And the film really shows how you can go into huge areas and not be able to get fruit and vegetables.

RAJ PATEL: That’s right. I mean, and I think that that’s a result of a very broken food system. But, I mean, there’s a longer story here. I mean, in the United States, the wages of working Americans or blue-collar Americans have remained, in real terms, at levels that are, you know, fairly constant through the 1970s ’til now. And middle-class Americans have, adjusted for inflation, not seen a wage increase or an income increase since—really since 1998. The wages in 1998 are the levels of income that we see today.

Now, there’s been a sort of historic compromise in the United States, where, in exchange for low wages, working Americans have the guarantee of cheap food and cheap gas. But cheap food is killing us, and cheap gas is killing our planet. And what we’re seeing, I think, is the results of this historic compromise, in terms of, you know, money sent—money used to fund the industries and the corporations that promote heavily processed, empty calories. And we’re seeing the real costs of those—of that processed food really coming now to—coming back to bite us.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk more about the large multinational agribusiness companies.

RAJ PATEL: Well, we live in a food system that is dominated by a handful of corporations. If you look internationally, if—in any major commodity, five or six corporations dominate more than half the market. And those corporations are very good at eking out subsidies from governments, transforming the terms of international trade in order to be able to tilt things their way. And the people who suffer the most as a result of that are, tragically, the people who are growing food, who are farmers and farm workers. In the United States, of course, we—you know, the poorest paid people in this country are farm workers. And that’s—I mean, that’s the sort of dirty secret of the food system, is that there is poverty produced by the way that we generate our food. And that’s obviously a global problem when there are around a billion people who are not just food insecure, but actually going hungry every day, who are malnourished—or undernourished, rather. And at the same time, we have a world where now there are one-and-a-half billion people who are overweight.

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of farm subsidies and how they support agribusiness?

RAJ PATEL: Well, if one looks at the farm bill—and, I mean, it’s, again, an historic compromise between urban and rural politicians in the United States. The largest slice of the farm bill is actually dedicated towards food assistance programs. But within the commodity programs, you know, the sort of 40 percent of the farm bill, more or less, that is dedicated to crop support, a large slice of that does go to the richest sort of 10 percent of farmers. Now, this isn’t to say that we don’t need farm subsidy. I mean, small farmers and sustainable family farms in the United States absolutely need investment and need support. But the way that the farm bill and the way that our United States Department of Agriculture works at the moment is really a handmaiden to these large agricultural concerns and mega farms, rather than the sustainable family farms that are going to produce the healthy fruits and vegetables that we so desperately need in our—to feed the 50 million Americans who are food insecure.

AMY GOODMAN: Raj, as we wrap up, talk about the significance of the Occupy movement and how this fits in to the whole story of food and hunger in this country.

RAJ PATEL: Well, there’s a fantastic—I mean, the food movement itself is centuries old. One of the most interesting incarnations of it comes from an international peasant movement called La Vía Campesina. And they came up in the early 1990s with this idea of food sovereignty. Now, food sovereignty is the idea that communities need to be able to decide their own—take control of their own food and agriculture policy. Now, if I say to you, “Communities need to take care of their own food and agriculture policy,” you can say, “Well, Raj, what does that mean?” And the response is, “Well, it depends on the community.” You need to have democratic debate about how—what exactly it is you want. In one community, in an inner-city community, that debate is going to look very different from rural America. But communities need to be at the table to have that democratic debate.

And one of the things that La Vía Campesina found early on was that in order to be able—we can take our time to have that debate, but one thing that we need to be impatient with is inequality. The one thing that we can’t wait for is to eradicate inequality, because unless we eradicate inequality, we can’t have a democratic conversation. And I think that that’s a story that the Occupy movement is, I think, reminding us of. And I think Occupy’s insistence on an eradication of inequality is something that they share in common with the food movement. And I think the food movement, and particularly movements like La Vía Campesina that have long been fighting faceless bureaucrats cutting government programs in the name of austerity, those kinds of connections, I think, are ones that are very fruitful to be making right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Raj Patel, I want to thank you so much for being with us.

RAJ PATEL: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Raj Patel is an author and activist based in San Francisco. Among his books are The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy, his earlier book, Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, the founder of the Sundance Film Festival joins us, weighs in on politics today. He is the famous actor and Academy Award-winning director, Robert Redford. Stay with us.

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