In 2022, according to the latest available statistics, more than 740 million people did not have enough to eat; that’s almost 20% of the population of Africa, 8.5% of Asia, 6.5% of America and 4% of Europe. 260 million of them are critically undernourished… Even more lack clean drinking water. More than 16% of French people say they do not have enough to eat. In 2023, hundreds of millions of children and students will go to school on an empty stomach. And these facts are not about to disappear: according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in 2030, over 600 million people will still be sleeping on an empty stomach.
Is this inevitable? We pretend to believe that the problem will solve itself. And many people still hope, more or less consciously, that everyone will one day be a solvent consumer. It’s an illusory belief: the market and economic growth won’t make hunger disappear.
In the meantime, we leave the responsibility of dealing with it to charitable organizations which, for centuries, have been organizing soup kitchens under a wide variety of names, sometimes with the help of governments.
In France, in 2023, 156 million euros of public money will be devoted by the State to food aid; and other resources will be devoted to school canteens. In the United States, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides a subsidized card to buy food (but not alcohol, tobacco or non-food items) for 41 million people with low incomes, few assets and at least one U.S. citizen in the household. In addition, the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) provides 700,000 seniors with incomes at or below 130% of the federal poverty line with food packages specifically designed to supplement nutritional intakes, which appear to help avoid costly hospitalizations and nursing home placements. In India, the Mid Day Meal Scheme provides free lunches to 120 million children in over 1.27 million schools. In Brazil, the “Fome Zero” program, launched in 2003 by Lula, is the only one to establish the principle of a “right to food” as a political priority. It has cut malnutrition by half in 6 years, and has significantly improved the population’s standard of living, health and quality of life.
These are just the beginnings: couldn’t access to healthy food (and drinking water) be considered a human right, in the same way as education and health, which are considered social achievements? More recently, some have even added, at least in theory, a right to housing.
All the arguments against this do not hold water. It is said, for example, that providing food for free would enable those who could afford it to buy more video games or flat screens; imported ones at that. Quite apart from the indecent nature of such a focus on the poorest, this overlooks the fact that the same argument could be applied to education and health.
It is also argued that, while the community has an interest in everyone’s health and education, it has no interest in everyone’s hunger. Can you hear the scandal in such a sentence?
Another objection is that it would not be possible to organize such a distribution. Which products to buy? To whom? How should they be distributed? In what proportions? How can we ensure menu variety? How can we adapt to individual tastes? These questions seem to me to be no more complex than organizing a cardiac surgery system or a school complex. And what’s already happening in existing systems shows that it can be done.
But that’s the crux of the difficulty. Assuming that a government wanted to grant this right, it would have to make available to everyone, in a decentralized way, nominative vouchers enabling them to buy certain food products in all stores (which would be willing to sell them), as fresh and natural as possible, with as wide a variety of choices as possible; avoiding products using artificial sugars, red meat and other poisons. These products would be offered to the public authorities by manufacturers who would award public contracts to acquire them. Just like in canteens. While protecting the interests of the farmers who produce them in price negotiations. If someone didn’t want to use these vouchers, or get more food, or whatever, they would be free to buy their food in other departments of the same store, or in other stores. The resulting health savings would be more than enough to pay for it.
Image: Food Bank volunteers in Bordeaux. Photo credit: Claude Petit / Sud Ouest