Published on Wednesday, November 24, 2004 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Reflections on Thanksgiving: Values We All Share
by Nick Parker
Around the country, many of us will gather Thursday with our families and friends and celebrate the values of generosity, compassion and cooperation that make Thanksgiving a unique holiday.
We've been hearing a lot about values. Over this past election campaign, the Republican Party touted itself as the only party to hold values many of us thought we all shared.
But what are these so-called "family values" worth without the generosity, compassion and cooperation that are the foundation of most religious traditions? Looking at the record of this Republican administration over the last four years, a quote from Gertrude Stein comes to mind: "There is no there there."
The United States lost more than 2 million jobs from 2000 to 2003. While some of those jobs have been replaced, today unemployment persists at 5.5 percent, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Department of Labor. But this figure misses the many millions who have given up looking for a job. Counting them pushes unemployment up to 9.7 percent as of last May, the Labor Department reports.
While unemployment shot up, the median income for Americans plummeted in the first two years of this administration. Those jobs that have been created over the last four years generally pay one-third less than the jobs they replaced, as a 2003 study for the U.S. Conference of Mayors shows, and actually helped to push people into poverty.
All of this translates into more hunger. In a study done by America's Second Harvest, a food-bank network and advocacy organization, households with at least one working member are the fastest growing group needing emergency food aid and now are 39 percent of all those seeking food aid. More than 33 million Americans -- 13 million of them children -- are food insecure, meaning that at one time or another over the past year they didn't know where their next meal would come from. And those suffering from hunger rose from 8.5 million to 9 million in 2002, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
What is the Bush administration planning to do about this? In the White House's latest budget, it calls for cuts and freezes in housing, food and health programs. Instead, it promotes individual initiative and a reliance on private charities. People suffering from hunger have of necessity turned to emergency food pantries. At the Alameda County Community Food Bank, for example, referrals for emergency food aid rose by 50 percent from 2003 to 2004.
But over the long term, this is a policy that is bound to fail.
Food pantries are intended to help those with emergency needs. They were never meant to replace the social safety net. Forcing millions of Americans to rely on food pantries to meet their food needs makes as much sense as forcing them to rely on emergency rooms for their health care.
More important, food banks and food pantries can never solve the cause of hunger because they simply can't address it. Poverty, not lack of food, is why hunger exists in the United States, as throughout the world. In fact, our reliance on emergency food aid may inadvertently help sustain hunger, as people in need get stuck in a cycle of dependency.
There clearly needs to be a change. And this offers the Republicans, who are so good at trumpeting values, an opportunity to put action to words. All they need to do is look to the communities that have acted on their own initiative to fight hunger and food insecurity.
In Oakland (where indeed there is a "there" there) neighborhood activists started the People's Grocery, a community garden and mobile grocery that provides nutritious, affordable food to the community and an educational experience for neighborhood youth. While not a complete solution in and of itself, it does give people new skills and knowledge, fresh organic produce and no small amount of dignity.
Creative solutions such as this are springing up in Boston, Chicago, Brooklyn, N.Y., Olympia, Wash. and Hawaii. And all of them are built on the values Americans cherish: generosity, compassion and cooperation. Trouble is, they have little money to expand.
These are initiatives that deserve our help. Perhaps as George W. Bush sits at his own Thanksgiving table, he will offer a prayer for the hungry, the disadvantaged and needy, then find within his administration the generosity, compassion and cooperation to support these people by pushing Congress to pass a real living wage so working people can support themselves, funding the local organizations that give so much back to the community and restoring proposed budget cuts that will grossly affect the poor and elderly.
Nick Parker is media coordinator at Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy (www.foodfirst.org), a food policy think tank in Oakland.
© Copyright 2004 San Francisco Chronicle