Soapbox Monday: Is hunger an environmental issue?

wheat field
Green wheat field photo by Petr Kratochvil.

I was probably a bit testy on the phone.

The person calling wanted to tell me about a hunger project in Bucks County, and since I’ve somehow landed on lists of reporters  who write about food — leading to all kinds of pitches that I have no interest in, such as what kind of Valentine candy to buy — I fear I cut the person off short.

But since then, I’ve been thinking about hunger, and I’ve realized it probably is an environmental issue. Or, at the very least, it dovetails with environmental issues.

For one, hunger relates to the idea of using our resources better.

In the Bucks County case, Delaware Valley College is partnering with the Hunger Nutrition Coalition of Bucks County to create a one-acre charitable garden on its main campus. DelVal students will plant, maintain, harvest and deliver the produce to the coalition, which says that “97 percent of its food pantry clients go without fresh fruits and vegetables if their local food pantry has none.”

If people are hungry, and there’s empty, arable, fertile land nearby, the thing that makes the most sense — never mind the public policies involved — is to dig it up and plant it.

Perhaps no one has showed this as compellingly as John Steinbeck in “The Grapes of Wrath,” which I re-read recently. I’m on a Steinbeck kick, loving every word.

I had forgotten how powerful “Grapes” was. The destitute Oklahoma farmers who had been kicked off their land and had come to California to find work harvesting the vast fruits and vegetables they had heard were there, were instead near starvation. At the same time, they saw vast stretches of beautiful land that remained untilled.

They couldn’t understand why they weren’t allowed access to some of it. Give them a few acres, they reasoned, and they’d have food a plenty.

Are we so different today?

Likewise, hunger seems an environmental issue because of the questions over how food is grown. In general, agribusiness tells us massive amounts of fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals are necessary to feed the world’s growing population. The organic farming community responds that the best way to feed everyone is to go organic.

And what about genetically-modifed organisms? Again, the agricultural conglomerate tells us that this is the way forward. Others worry about “contamination” of non-GMO foods growing nearby and about the growing problem of “superweeds” that some blame on GMO practices.

These are all issues with environmental ramifications as well as food supply ones.

Finally, there’s food waste. Leftover food on plates is bad enough. But how much food do our grocery stores toss? My husband makes a point of asking the produce clerks what’s up whenever he sees one of them removing perfectly good food from the shelf. Once, one told him that the mushrooms are thrown out at the end of every day.

In other words, one minute they’re okay to sell. Five minutes later, they’re headed for the dumpster? Isn’t there room for anything in between? Like soup?

Which brings me back to Steinbeck and the most powerful portion of his book.

He’s talking about a valley in California coming into bloom. “All California quickens with produce, and the fruit grows heavy, and the limbs bend gradually under the fruit so that little crutches must be placed under them to support the weight.”

He speaks of the “men who experiment with seed, endlessly developing the techniques for greater crops of plants whose roots will resist the million enemies of the earth: the molds, the insects, the rusts, the blights. “

But in the year that Steinbeck writes about, the profits aren’t being realized. Farmers say they can’t afford to harvest their fruits and vegetables.

So they let it rot.

“The decay spreads over the State, and the sweet smell is a great sorrow on the land. Men who can graft the trees and make the seed fertile and big can find no way to let the hungry people eat their produce. Men who have created new fruits in the world cannot create a system whereby their fruits may be eaten,” Steinbeck says.

Is the food given to the thousands of starving farmers who came with their families on the false promise of better times? It is not.

Carloads of oranges are doused with kerosene and burned.

Potatoes are dumped into rivers, along which armed guards stand ready to repel any who would try to scoop the potatoes out.

“There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation.” Steinbeck writes. “There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success.”

Since this is Soapbox Monday, I’m hoping readers will sound off below. Is hunger an environmental concern? If so, what should we be doing that we’re not doing now?

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