Food Stamps and Food Rights

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Recent federal proposals to gut SNAP benefits and states’ calls to add paid employment and drug-testing as eligibility determinants are nothing new. They reflect longstanding concerns with dependence, waste, and fraud, as well as anxiety that black people, indigenous Americans, and immigrants might rise above abject status. They also reveal a widespread and longstanding suspicion of poor people—particularly poor women and especially poor women of color—as undeserving.

These attacks get repeated so often that it is easy to become numb to them.  Threatening to remove food aid has become commonplace.  This enmity can feel like a natural obstacle—as unmovable as a rock formation. It is difficult—but it is important—to remember that these attacks have not always been successful.  Indeed, countering them was crucial to the very creation of food stamps.  But it required a shift in the gender politics of food aid. The program does not, and perhaps never has, reflected the beneficence of the state.

Our modern system of food benefits emerged from public activism.  It required acceptance of women’s rights, and a move away from blaming women for their families’ hunger.

That wasn’t always how federal food aid worked.  The first federal “food stamps,” the earliest iteration of SNAP, were distributed in the 1930s. Given the longstanding suspicion that, in the midst of a depression, the poor might eat “too well”, these “benefits” were paltry. State and county participation was voluntary, and many counties erected additional barriers for enrollment. Participants often had to “buy” the stamps, so the poorest Americans could rarely access the benefits. Among goods supplied directly, surplus dairy and produce were sometimes withheld or distributed in public spaces (thus demeaning the recipients).

Racism and sexism were prominent in the applicants’ experience: local officials who screened potential participants could turn them away or put them through humiliation (and without federal oversight). For instance, food stamps were often denied in the summer, forcing sharecroppers to accept low-wage farm work, then allowed in the winter—to keep this seasonal work pool from moving away. Women of any race whose sexual or political habits were deemed unacceptable might also be denied, as could African Americans who registered to vote (the denial of aid served as retribution for their activism).

This early version of food stamps also failed by design: it was never intended to actually sustain hungry Americans, but to shore up prices and redirect farm surpluses.

As a result, federal funding for aid and access to needed food rose and fell in response to changes in farm production and federal policy. The programs were unpredictable and ultimately pretty useless.

This might seem similar to the system we have today; certainly, the same racialized suspicions are at play. But there are important differences: the expansive system that is under attack today (and for which so many are fighting) reflected a different historical moment. In the 1960s, rhetoric shifted from women’s dependence and need (and blame) toward a fundamental right to food. This era of social movement activism included activism around hunger.  Often led by women, these movements are why food stamps have become such a widespread and important system.

To understand this transformation, we need to leapfrog from the origins of food stamps in the 1930s to their expansion in the 1960s.  Then, groups of activists moving in civil rights and anti-racist circles articulated the notion that hunger (and what we might call food insecurity) had to be addressed should citizens ever move beyond immiseration. As Eldridge Cleaver famously said, “Black children who go to school hungry each morning have been organized into their poverty.”

In linking hunger to structural inequity, access to food emerged as a right.   Hunger emerged as a violation of rights rather than an unfortunate byproduct of poverty

We are learning more and more about this ‘60s-era anti-hunger activism. A group called  “Operation Life” used donations and USDA surplus food to operate a clinic and summer food program in Las Vegas. In Memphis, a group of poor women worked in concert with local physicians to treat hunger itself; their efforts nearly eradicated malnutrition-related illnesses among the children they served. Rural black sharecroppers turned to cooperative organizing and public gardens to offset hunger and unreliable incomes. The most famous of these efforts, the Black Panthers’ breakfast project, fed tens of thousands of children in dozens of cities—and became a major distraction to the FBI. Many of these programs emphasized what we might call food sovereignty—the right of people to feed themselves.

But not all did so. Predominantly white middle-class women organized volunteer groups to serve school lunches in many urban districts. When they realized how many children were unable to participate, a coalition of mainstream liberal groups wrote a devastating report on the failure of existing school lunch programs. That report revealed how widespread hunger remained among poor Americans.  These groups may seem distant from the Black Panthers, but they shared an activist culture and a vision of food as an economic right—a crucial first step in claiming one’s civil rights.

This era also made poor women’s food work, especially the work of African American women, visible. Even when men became the public face of anti-hunger programs, and even when there was genuine mixed-sex cooperation, it was often women’s work that energized the efforts.

As we are seeing in today’s struggle, it was often black women who spoke most often and most loudly about inadequate food in their communities. And it was their planning that brought the offerings from farms, community gardens, and free breakfast programs into daily survival strategies. These movements insisted that what might have been seen as work done for individual families was actually work that allowed people to make claims on each other and on the state. Women’s food work connected to struggles for autonomy and justice.

As a result, this era of anti-hunger programs detached food aid from earlier platforms intended to surveil and discipline women: not only did women not bear the blame for families’ poor nutrition, both they and policymakers came to understand that they had a right to communal and public support for food.

Media and congressional interest in hunger echoed the themes of these movements. Pressure on the Senate led to a subcommittee tour of Mississippi in the spring of 1967; the report and its publicity helped make Robert Kennedy a liberal icon, outraged both local and federal officials, and spurred a ten-state survey of hunger by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Even before the survey could be completed, the American public was exposed to horrifying instances of malnourishment through efforts like the award-winning CBS documentary “Hunger in America.” The 1968 film opened with a scene of a doctor attempting—unsuccessfully–to save the life of a baby whose mother had been malnourished.  Senators received a flood of calls, and families in the film received shipments of food from strangers. Ensuing investigations reinforced that hungry people, including African American and Chicano people, were in fact vibrant human beings, capable of full lives but stymied by a violation of their rights to life: hunger.

By 1969 even conservative senators were calling for expanded, accessible food stamp programs.  (Many have argued that fear of success of standalone food programs was another driver in federal response.)

Where the media often turned their cameras on hungry children, the policies enacted bore the imprint of their activist mothers’ work. School lunch and breakfast programs became federal mainstays—and crucial components of many households’ resources. Women’s activism changed the national conversation on hunger.

It would be hard to overstate the positive outcomes of food stamps and other hunger programs. Food stamps alone serve tens of millions of people, and  social scientists credit them with reducing overall poverty (particularly for children). This is because supplemental food assistance allows families and households to spend what money they have on housing, education, clothing, and other basic needs, and to remain above the poverty line. It is especially important that SNAP has been able to expand quickly during recessions—reaching as many as 47 million people during recent downturns.   And, beyond food stamps, free breakfast and lunch programs, WIC, and countless other efforts, however imperfectly, make a real difference; food is a crucial ingredient in “freeing people from poverty,” to paraphrase Eldridge Cleaver.

In ways that analysts have not always appreciated, funding food programs did not just depend on government anti-poverty efforts or on congressional interest, but on a broad public willingness to see the failures of food distribution as systemic rather than the fault of individual mothers.

As spokespeople, as lawyers, as policymakers, as grassroots community workers, as impoverished mothers, and as visible activists—these movements shifted the political position of women relative to food. Women’s activism and antiracist politics reframed food as a collective right and poverty as a collective failure.

Attacks on food stamps revive tired tropes that hunger, malnourishment, and a host of other health and social problems reflect women’s failures to cook or provision.  They echo racist claims that public assistance encourages the dependence and passivity of women of color. But history tells a different story of possibility.  Our most effective systems of food aid began outside of Congress, with antiracist and feminist social movements.  Regaining their rhetoric of food as a right, and their assertion of women’s rights, can be effective tools in the contemporary fight over food.

-– Tracey Deutsch is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Minnesota

— Photo of the Black Panthers Breakfast Program from Eater