Saturday, August 10, 2013

Athens Food Culture & the Hungry

Walking uptown on a recent humid evening, it occurred to me that I have been at home most evenings for a very long stretch. I felt giddy heading off alone to see the film, A Place at the Table. Earlier in the day I had tried to purchase tickets for Bounty on the Bricks, but they had sold out the week before.

Athens's food culture has long been about "real food." My first introduction to real good was the Athens Farmers Market, offering beautiful fruit and produce; natural and organic meat; and eggs,honey, and other homemade products like apple butter. My appreciation of Athens sky rocketed when we lived in Washington, D.C. and could only dream of finding fruits, vegetables, and meats of the quality and with the prices available here in Athens. We stocked up on visits.

Later, I got to know some of the local businesses around town. At Donkey Coffee we fell for the coffee and eventually began ordering it from their supplier. Products like Crumbs Crackers were hoarded, and, once, we had them ship as many packages as they could stuff into an APO shipping box to us in Japan. Our Japanese friends loved them too.

One summer while visiting Athens, we called Snowville Creamery and asked for a tour. The bucolic setting, my personal fascination with food production, the chocolate milk samples,and the kindness of the staff were all wonderful. However, the cows were the real memory makers with their line stopping long appraisals of us. From our home in Japan we hoped for the day they would make yogurt from a Kickstarter campaign; the day came after we moved here.

Summer visits to Dow Lake often included a pizza from Avalanche and al fresco dinning on my in-laws patio with pressure fried chicken from Millers. Annually, whatever the season, we trekked uptown to my husband's favorite grad student bar, O'houlies Pub, now defunct, but it eventually became Jackie O's which now brews beers that you can now buy in a can at Krogers. Wow! 

I was happy to move here even if the restaurant scene was low key compated to Japan and geared toward college students. Plenty of the basic ingredients are locally available to the home cook.

However, the change from visitor to resident of Athens has been an introduction to other aspects of the local food culture. Most striking, the number of people that don't get enough food-- one in three children in our ten county region are hungry.

My husband, as part of his work, asks children and families questions like, "When do you eat breakfast?" The answer is often, "At school," which means school food programs. Another question, "What kinds of snacks do you eat?" The answer is often some kind of processed food like the coveted "Hot Pocket." Kids sometimes ask their parents if they can go to McDonalds after a visit to his office. The answer he hears is, "We can't afford that."

The film, A Place at the Table, looks at the hunger problem in America through the experience of a couple of kids, clips from experts, a movie star cameo, and statistics and information graphics related to the hungry, food policies, and food access. The points I found compelling were:

  • Subsidized foods are cheap which is why processed foods made from corn, wheat, and soy are cheaper than fruits and vegetables
  • When your food budget is small, you stalk up on cheap (processed) foods 
  • Obesity and health problems increase with a diet high in processed foods & fear over where the next meal will come
  • Ohio has $7 billion dollars of health care costs that are diet related
  • American taxpayers are paying corporations through the Farm Bill subsidies to make cheap processed foods
  • Fruit and Vegetable growers do not get the same subsidies as mega farmed corn, wheat, and soy growers who have powerful lobbies in Washington
  • The Farm Bill has cut funding ($40 billion) for food programs (think SNAP, food stamps, etc.) but not funds to Corporations
  • Food Stamps, if you can qualify, provide $3 a day for food, breakfast, lunch, and diner and no money for gas to get it
  • 75% of food deserts are urban which means you have to travel, spend more money, and have time to acquire real food like a carrot.
  • 90 cents of the school lunch fee is for the food costs
  • Hunger in America has increased since the early 1980s as funding has been decreased to food programs that feed people
  • Food pantries, churches, food banks and other community resources have grown immensely, from one food bank in 1967 to the rapid growth in the 1980s to now, yet still can't touch or keep up with the demand for food
  • The US Government committed $700 billion in taxpayer money to Wall Street compared to $106 billion on food aid in 2012

Congress is considering major cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP a.k.a. food stamps) with automatic cuts taking effect in November. We're not meeting the need and we're cutting the program?  Jeff Bridges in the film says, "If another country were doing this to our children, we would be at war."

What to do? 

"Join us in telling (your) U. S. Representative that the answer to our nation's concerns about balancing the budget should not mean taking food from the most vulnerable among us." For the locals, that means contacting Senators Brown and Portman and Representative Stivers to rescind the cuts before the first of November.

The most powerful scene in the movie? When the fifth grader tells you she has trouble concentrating because she keeps seeing her teacher as a giant banana or sometimes an orange. Then, she pats her belly in a way that let's you know--she's hungry.

A Place at the Table