As a kindergartener, I ate mid-morning snacks of cheese and orange juice in the school cafeteria. Not even as a five-year-old did this combination strike me as congenial. But that wasn’t the point. Cheese had to be consumed as a price-support measure. Because cheese was a surplus commodity, even back in 1947.
“Snack” came to us from Middle Dutch in the sense of “to snap”. It was in the mid-1700s that English speakers began to use the word in its modern sense. Like “gnosh” in Yiddish.
“Snack” became popular American usage in the 1950s. That makes sense. It was a time of rising incomes, of prosperity for the average American, after the shortages of World War II, the period when theaters introduced popcorn as a substitute for candy because sugar wasn’t available.
While Europe was clawing its way out from under the rubble of war and Britain was rationing food, in the United States children ate Hershey bars between heavy meals of roast beef, potatoes, and fresh or canned vegetables. The snack arises out of that cornucopia, American agriculture.
Surplus led to excess. No wonder dieting is so hard: there’s no incentive to cut back. Excess supports the American economy. The purveyors of food—and of everything else—saw only growth ahead. It was part of what we called “progress”. Better—and more of—everything.
But no American political candidate would dare say, “Enough!” They might nibble at the edges of “enough” to counsel healthier diets, the dangers of obesity. But no politician will assault excess, itself. That would be an attack on American plenty, and on “progress,” and who doesn’t want to see plenty and progress continue? To make “enough” a virtue would be to declare retreat. And, you know, “this flag don’t run”.
“In 2010,” writes Allison Ford (DivineCaroline) on the Website Care2, “Frito-Lay developed a plant-based compostable package for its SunChips line of snacks” but had to withdraw the item from the American market because Americans thought the package “made too much noise”. Evidently, Ford tells us, Americans have “delicate aural sensibilities”. Canadians, on the other hand, took the noise in stride.
By now, everyone has read the figures in their newspapers. The United States, with 5% of the world’s population, uses 24% of the world’s energy. The 20% who live in greatest prosperity consume 76.6% of that energy. And if you delve into categories with the word “most” in them, the United States is almost sure to head the list (sadly but predictably, not health outcomes).
But there is plenty of food to go round. Some say it’s just a problem of distribution. I think that means, how much the richest are willing to share with the poorest. The will to share isn’t great. And the problem isn’t that we Americans are a stingy bunch. We tend to be among the top ranked when it comes to charitable giving, for instance.
So, why don’t we share more of our food, our prosperity, with the rest of the world?
In a way, we already do. When people migrate to the United States, they immediately begin to share in American prosperity, to consume as the rest of us do. Unfortunately, that does nothing to solve the hunger problem in the rest of the world. It’s a shame, really, that we can’t frame the problem as one of health. Couldn’t we say, for example, that our fast-food diet is promoting disease and death in the U.S.? Which is certainly true. Couldn’t we say that sharing our wealth with hungry nations is a way of helping us live longer, healthier lives? Of course, we do say such things. We sound like we mean it. Still, consumption continues apace, resulting not only in poorer health but also in enormous food waste.
As Adam Chandler writes in the July 15, 2016, issue of The Atlantic,
“Americans waste an unfathomable amount of food. In fact, according to a Guardian report released this week, roughly 50 percent of all produce in the United States is thrown away—some 60 million tons (or $160 billion) worth of produce annually, an amount constituting ‘one third of all foodstuffs.’ Wasted food is also the single biggest occupant in American landfills, the Environmental Protection Agency has found.”
That’s the sound of Americans rejecting this, or any other, solution to world hunger that involves giving something up. No one here believes that “less is more”. We only gave up our gas-guzzling cars (on average, anyway) when gas became a scarcity in the 70s, when drivers sat in long lines for their ration of gas and sometimes fought over their place in line. [Yes, it really happened.] Today, it’s as if the big-finned, tank-heavy, oversized cars of the late 50s/early 60s remained in vogue. Except now, our cars are smaller and it’s “we, the people” who have become out-sized.
Writing in HungerNotes.com, a publication of worldhunger.org, Phillip S. Warf declares, “Overwhelming majorities support U.S. efforts to alleviate hunger abroad in principle [emphasis added].” Citing survey evidence, Warf reports that “87 percent favored the U.S. ‘giving food and medical assistance to people in needy countries.” He goes on to explain that American survey respondents were even willing to pay $50 a year to support such an effort.
So what’s holding us back?
In an op-ed piece for The New York Times (“Incurable American Excess,” Aug. 6, 2015), Roger Cohen refers to “a Pew Global Attitudes survey” that asked Americans, Brits, and Europeans which “was more important: ‘freedom to pursue life’s goals without state interference,’ or ‘state guarantees that nobody is in need.’” The responses from Americans were weighted in favor of “freedom” (58%), while the British (55%) and Europeans (62%) favored “state guarantees”.
Cohen believes that American attitudes are rooted in the notion of individual “self-reliance,” while “Europeans, with two 20th-century experiences of cataclysmic societal fracture, are bound to the idea of social solidarity as prudent safeguard and guarantor of human decency”. Where the French view “the state as a noble idea and embodiment of citizens’ rights,” we in the U.S. “tend to see the state as a predator on those rights”. In a nutshell, then, writes Cohen, “The French ennoble the dutiful public servant. Americans ennoble the disruptive entrepreneur.”
America’s negative attitude toward “social solidarity” is reflected in our nation’s “crumbling infrastructure, the paucity of public spaces, the conspicuous waste (of food and energy above all), the dirtiness of cities and the acuteness of their poverty.”
Cohen’s op-ed concludes with a brief review of Robert Paarlberg’s book, The United States of Excess, in which the political scientist finds Americans reject “being coerced into a lifestyle change” . . . or, as Cohen puts it,
“The world should not expect America to change. Its response to overconsumption is inadequate. On global warming, the country adapts but does not confront, content ‘to protect itself, and itself alone.’
“Domestically, it shuns the kind of coordinated policy action that will help the less fortunate, particularly disadvantaged minorities” who are seen as “lazy”. Because, once again, we’re big on bootstraps and ladders, pulling ourselves up by them or climbing them to success and prosperity. Rugged individualism. Ayn Rand, run amok.
It’s no wonder, then, that Congress and state governments are unwilling to legislate major changes that might have a real impact—on hunger, energy consumption, pollution, or any other pressing issue. Constituents won’t support such measures, our legislators believe.
And though political ideology and big money champion all the wrong priorities in state capitals and Washington, D.C., they’re not wrong about the public temper.