An Interview with Mariana Chilton, Director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities
Mariana Chilton is the Director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities and Associate Professor at Drexel University School of Public Health. She was recently featured in the new documentary ‘A Place at the Table,’ (available with XFINITY On Demand) directed by Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush, with appearances by Jeff Bridges, Raj Patel and Tom Colicchio. The film highlights the experiences of hunger and food insecurity in America and offers solutions. The USDA defines food insecurity as when “consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year.”
What does your organization do?
We do qualitative and quantitative research on the experience of food insecurity and hunger, and we’re primarily focused on families with young children.
What you see in the film are two aspects of our work. One of them is when I’m interviewing a woman in the emergency room at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children and that work is straight out of Children’s HealthWatch, which looks at the impact of public policy on the health and well-being of young kids. We track participation in the SNAP program (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as the food stamp program) and see how that helps to protect the health and well-being of kids. We know that SNAP benefits help prevent hospitalizations and promote child health and development.
The other aspect of my work that is featured in the film is my work with Witnesses to Hunger, which is a program I launched in 2008 to try to ensure that low-income women who know the experience of poverty and hunger firsthand can participate in the national dialogue. They are usually silenced and left out of the dialogue and don’t get a chance to speak directly to legislators and policy makers who can really make a big difference in their lives. The idea is that the women would speak about their experiences with hunger and about their ideas for changing the public systems that help to fund the SNAP program and WIC (Women, Infants and Children food nutrition program) and housing subsidies, etc.
Barbie Izquierdo, a single mother of two in Philadelphia, who is featured heavily in the film, is one of the members of Witnesses to Hunger and has testified before Congress and has met with legislators and continues to do so, along with many other women now across the eastern seaboard. We have sites for Witnesses to Hunger in Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and now in Camden, New Jersey.
Watch an exclusive clip from ‘A Place at the Table’ with Barbie Izquierdo.
The idea is to start changing the systems that allow people to continue to go hungry and to make sure that we can end hunger in this country. We are certainly capable of doing so, we just need to get our legislators on board with the topic and to see that they can actually make a huge difference with the way that they craft public policy.
What are the biggest reasons there isn’t a “place at the table” for everyone in America or food at the table when they get there?
I think that the legislators and policy makers have very little understanding of the experience of poverty. They don’t know it firsthand and they may not even have relatives that are experiencing poverty, so they can’t relate. There’s a major disconnect between the policy makers and those who are experiencing poverty.
It’s also very difficult for people who are poor to understand the political systems and how to even get a place at the table and how to participate in the dialogue without a lot of computer access, information about how decisions are made on Capitol Hill and it’s often very difficult to get to Congress, or city hall even, or the state legislature. And then, when and if you do get there, it’s very difficult to be heard and to be taken seriously.
There’s not only a misunderstanding between legislators and people who are poor, but there are also these attitudes about people who are poor that really get in the way of smart decision-making and policy-making and I think that has to do with ignorance and a lack of understanding.
What actionable items can the average person do? As the film suggests, being charitable alone will not move the needle on the hunger issue.
Right. The first thing that people can do is pick up their phones and call their representatives, the House of Representatives, and also call the Senate and speak directly with the staffers of our Congress people and say that they are very upset about the experience of hunger in this country and that we need to protect our nutrition assistance programs and we need to improve minimum wage and we need to have a comprehensive plan to end hunger in America.
Is there specific legislation people should reference when they make these calls?
Yes. The first thing that is very upsetting and needs to be dealt with is sequestration. The WIC program is a nutrition program for women, infants and children, where 50 percent of the newborns in this country are participating in this program. The sequester puts major cuts on this program and over 700,000 people are destined to fall off of this program and to not get the help that they need and deserve. We know that it promotes child development, it prevents child hospitalizations, and it actually reduces stress and depression for moms. So that is the first thing that people should speak out about. We need to protect the WIC program.
Secondly, this summer the Farm Bill is going to be up for legislation and the Farm Bill is what funds the food stamp program. People need to call Congress to say we need to protect the food stamp program. There should be no cuts to any kind of nutrition assistance within the food stamp program and we have to protect it.
Thirdly, I think people can begin to speak out about the minimum wage. It is absolutely unacceptable that our minimum wage in this country still allows a person to be eligible for SNAP benefits, housing subsidies and other kinds of programs. So a lot of corporations are getting subsidized by the government to pay low wages. We need to bring corporations to the table and make sure that they’re actually paying a living wage and the government can work with corporations to help to do that by providing tax incentives, etc.
What would you say to those who feel that too many “lazy” people are taking advantage of food stamp or equivalent programs?
I think those people truly don’t understand the experience of poverty and hunger. I think people have this view of people who are on SNAP benefits as not working. Well, I have to tell you, 80% percent of people on SNAP benefits are working and 75% of people who are on SNAP benefits are working full time. So the major, most massive issue right now has to do with minimum wage. The fact that we have corporations who are paying minimum wage so much so that people have to rely on government assistance to meet their basic needs is absolutely unacceptable.
That view that people are somehow lazy is a lazy point of view where people are uninformed and they’re letting corporations off the hook. As you can imagine, I get very upset when people try to portray people who are poor as lazy. I actually think that they work harder and they struggle more than anyone else in this country.
Would you say there is a direct link between food insecurity and obesity? Can you explain how government subsidies affect this as touched on in the film?
There’s no proven direct link. We’re still working on that in the research for the Institute of Medicine, which is the premiere medical health and medical research organization for the country. We’re still having a difficult time finding empirical evidence for that relationship, but what connects both of them is the experience of poverty and so if people are poor, they are going to constantly try to stretch their dollars. The cheaper food is also the kind of food that is highly processed, filled with saturated fat and sodium which are very bad for your health and cause obesity, chronic health problems, etc.
In the film, this is portrayed by showing that the government provides subsidies for the types of crops and massive agriculture industry that helps to keep corn and flour very cheap and it doesn’t provide enough subsidies and assistance for those who are growing fresh produce. I think it would be better if the government could look at “my plate” – it’s not the food pyramid anymore, it’s called “my plate” (www.choosemyplate.gov). They could look at the plate that we suggest that people should be eating and provide subsidies that help to support a nutritious diet for Americans. I think that would help everyone, not just people who are poor.
But frankly, if you end obesity, you’re not going to end hunger and if you end hunger, you’re not necessarily going to end obesity. They are not one in the same, but they do overlap.
If more people realized there is an overlapping connection, do you think changes would happen at a faster pace since obesity is such a healthcare cost concern on the national agenda?
Yes, but as much as people realize, they have to act. They have to start speaking out. They have to kick into gear their civic engagement. We have to get our democracy moving again. We have to not just learn about it, but we have to call our Congress people and tell them we want something different and we are going to vote differently if they do not follow through on these issues that help keep America healthy, safe, learning well and being able to compete on a global level. We cannot compete anymore. America’s children are really at risk and we are losing our position on a global scale. It’s not just about buying different kinds of food at the grocery store. Pick up the phone and get involved.
What are the most staggering hunger stats and what is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about hunger in America?
What is the most staggering is that one in four young children in America is living in a household that is food insecure. Over nine million infants, toddlers and preschoolers are put at risk. If you think about very young children, their brains are developing so fast, so any kind of nutritional deprivation has severe, lifelong consequences on their cognitive, social and emotional development. One in four. That’s unbelievable and unacceptable.
In addition, the level of deprivation people are experiencing and the level of indifference by our government officials, corporations and the public at large to this really morally upsetting public health crisis has been surprising. The indifference is extraordinarily shocking.
Why do you think people are so indifferent?
If you really think about it, it’s really upsetting to the psyche and to our sense of humanity. So I think it’s easier for people to shut it out and pretend it’s not their problem. And yet, if we aren’t doing anything about it, then we are a part of the problem. I think people realize that. Once you know, you are urged to act. You cannot live with yourself if you are not taking action. There is a very individualistic sensibility in this country, that we shouldn’t help each other, that we shouldn’t be responsible for each other. I think that’s where the indifference comes from. I also think that the press, the media helps to feed stereotypes and feed a sense of indifference and allow the indifference to continue.
What are the biggest misconceptions about hunger in America?
Well, the first one is that hunger doesn’t exist in America. Hunger is rampant in this country. It just doesn’t look like people think it’s supposed to look, you know with kids with flies in their eyes, etc. Number two; that people are not working. You have millions of working hungry in this country. Number three; it’s a misconception that the poor and hungry are only black and Latino. There are more white children experiencing hunger. But if you look at it in terms of which populations are suffering the most, yes, you have families that are African-American, Latino and American Indian who are suffering food insecurity and hunger three times the rate of white people. That’s unacceptable.
I think the other misconception is that you can’t do anything to solve it. We can solve this issue and we pretty much eradicated food insecurity and hunger back in the 70s as they showed in the film through the SNAP program and through public benefits and labor laws that were helping to keep people earning a living wage. That has completely been thrown out the window. I think there is this misconception that people who earn minimum wage are teenagers. The majority of people who are earning minimum wage are mothers.
What are the biggest ways hunger disproportionately affects children? Why does it affect families with young children the most?
It’s an example of how our programs to help families are not working and they don’t work especially for families with the youngest children. That means that we are not providing adequate childcare services and subsidies for working families and that the fact that this is true shows you that this is extremely high-risk problem for the youngest children in America. It shows you that we don’t have the right infrastructure. We have not made comprehensive investments in families with young children.
How do you think this issue will affect the future of our country if significant changes aren’t made to address the issue?
Not only will we have a really unhealthy American public, but I’d give it twenty years before we see a complete social disarray because the young kids now are being harmed. The scars of malnutrition last for a lifetime and they get passed on from generation to generation. So we’re going to have an ill-prepared workforce, we’re going to have a lot more people needing public assistance when they grow up. We’re not going to be able to compete with populations around the world, we’re not going to be as creative, we’re not going to make as many scientific discoveries or technological discoveries. We’re going to pretty much be on the trash heap of history if we don’t do something.
What is the biggest message you want people to take away from this film?
That hunger is solvable and every single person is a part of the solution if they could only act. If they could just pick up the phone and be more civically engaged. Get involved in our democracy.
There is hope. There is lots of hope. The hope is in taking action and calling out our Congress members to do the right thing.
Watch the Trailer for ‘A Place at the Table:’
Learn more about how to take action on the issue of hunger in America at actioncenter.takepart.com/apatt.