Hunger in Plain Sight

There are hungry people out there, actually; they’re just largely invisible to the rest of us, or they look so much like us that it’s hard to tell. The Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program, better known as SNAP and even better known as food stamps, currently has around 46 million participants, a record high. That’s one in eight Americans — 10 people in your subway car, one or two on every line at Walmart.

We wouldn’t wish that on anyone, but as it stands, the number should be higher[1]: many people are unaware that they’re eligible for SNAP, and thus the participation rate is probably around three-quarters of what it should be.

Food stamps allow you to shop more or less normally, but on an extremely tight budget, around $130 a month. It’s tough to feed a family on food stamps (and even tougher without them), and that’s where food banks — a network of nonprofit, nongovernment agencies, centrally located clearing houses for donated or purchased food that is sent to local affiliated agencies or “pantries” — come in. Food banks may cover an entire state or part of one: the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, for example, serves 53 counties and provides enough food to feed 48,000 square miles and feeds 90,000 people a week — in a state with fewer than four million people.

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All Hail the Sweet Potato

For more than 30 consecutive Thanksgivings — including this one — I’ve written about turkey in all of its guises. Occasionally I’ve protested, pleading with editors that although the bird in its wild form may be traditional and is indisputably indigenous, whether the one you buy is free-range, wild, natural, organic, pumped up with antibiotics or even injected with “butter,” it’s just about the worst piece of meat you can roast.

 At the hands of all but the most experienced, careful or lucky cooks, the more than 700 million pounds of turkey we’ll buy this week will wind up with breast meat that’s cottony-dry and leg meat that is underdone, tough, stringy or all three. And although a friend of mine claims that this is how people like it — “it’s exactly how our grandmothers did it, and it’s what we grew up with,” he says — I believe this explains why we waste an estimated $282 million worth of turkey each year, enough to feed each food-insecure American with 11 servings.

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The Food Movement Takes a Beating

AN election that saw great strides for women, gay men and lesbians and even pot smokers left the nascent food movement scratching its collective head. We’re going to see marijuana legalized before we see a simple change in food labeling that’s favored by more than 90 percent of Americans? Or a tax on soda, a likely contributor to the obesity problem?

Possibly.

Proposition 37, which would have required packagers to label foods containing genetically modified organisms (G.M.O.’s) as such, was on the ballot in California. As recently as two months ago, the vote for labeling appeared to be a shoo-in. But then the opposition spent nearly a million dollars a day — a total of $46 million, or about five times as much as the measure’s backers — not so much chipping away at the lead but demolishing it.

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Buying the Vote on G.M.O.’s

Supporters of ingredients derived from “genetically modified foods,” which hereafter I’ll call G.M.O.’s — genetically modified organisms — are mostly the chemical companies who make them or other people who make money from them. They assert that a) there’s no proof that G.M.O.’s are harmful to humans, and b) studies demonstrating that they might be are largely flawed [1]. Point B might even be true, although since the chemical companies largely control the research, it’s hard to tell.

But even if there were a way to guarantee that food produced with G.M.O. ingredients is not directly bad for you, it remains clear that such food is in general bad for all of us, based on the collateral damage from producing it.

What most genetically engineered crops have in common is that they’re bred to be super-resistant to chemical herbicides, chemicals that will kill pretty much everything except the specified crop. And as the weeds that those chemicals are meant to kill adapt and grow bigger and stronger, more and stronger chemicals are needed to try to deal with them.

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That Flawed Stanford Study

I tried to ignore the month-old “Stanford study.” I really did. It made so little sense that I thought it would have little impact.

That was dumb of me, and I’m sorry.

The study, which suggested — incredibly — that there is no “strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods,” caused as great an uproar as anything that has happened, food-wise, this year. (By comparison, the Alzheimer’s/diabetes link I wrote about last week was ignored.)

That’s because headlines (and, of course, tweets) matter. The Stanford study was not only an exercise in misdirection, it was a headline generator. By providing “useful” and “counterintuitive” information about organic food, it played right into the hands of the news hungry while conveniently obscuring important features of organic agriculture.

If I may play with metaphor for a moment, the study was like declaring guns no more dangerous than baseball bats when it comes to blunt-object head injuries. It was the equivalent of comparing milk and Elmer’s glue on the basis of whiteness. It did, in short, miss the point. Even Crystal Smith-Spangler, a Stanford co-author, perfectly captured the narrowness of the study when she said: “some believe that organic food is always healthier and more nutritious. We were a little surprised that we didn’t find that.” That’s because they didn’t look — or even worse, they ignored.

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Guns, Butter, and Then Some

Back in the administration of W., we looked for the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That was the wrong place; they’re here at home. Normally the W.M.D. I write about is the Standard American Diet (yes: SAD); occasionally I talk about food safety, or climate change, or related topics. But no matter what you look at, the basic problem remains so-called leadership that cannot stand up to big ag, big food, big energy, Wall Street …or the N.R.A.

Since 9/11, 33 Americans have been killed by “terrorists”; roughly 150,000 Americans have been killed by non-terrorists: that is, your run-of-the-mill murderers. Murder, like the leading cause of death — heart disease — is often preventable, through regulations, education and medical intervention.

We don’t know why Jared Loughner — had you, too, forgotten his name before he reappeared in the news on Tuesday? — shot Gabby Giffords, but we do know that he told his shrink that he wished he’d taken the antidepressants he’d been prescribed before the shooting. We don’t know why James Holmes allegedly shot up the Batman crowd, but we do know he was acting in a weird manner, and though his analyst told the police he was troubled, there was no one to help him. We gather that the suicidal Wade M. Page was a racist so ignorant he didn’t know a Sikh from a Muslim.

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Unanswered Questions for the U.S.D.A.

My column this week is about a “lovers’ quarrel” between the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (N.C.B.A.) and the Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.). Following the withdrawal of an article in an internal U.S.D.A. newsletter supportive of Meatless Mondays – an occurrence that appears to have been directly triggered by an angry rant by the N.C.B.A.’s president – I asked both organizations for interviews; both declined. Here are the questions I had for the U.S.D.A.:

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