Urban Poor More Food Insecure Today than Blacks in Jim Crow South

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Speaking at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s “Food + Justice = Democracy” conference last week, Congressman Keith Ellison described the state of “food insecurity” in which many urban poor Americans find themselves.

“You hear stories about forced labor and Jim Crow, but still the people loved the land,” said Ellison. “And here’s the thing. I guarantee you that my mother and her parents, who lived in Jim Crow Louisiana, probably had better food than folks living in urban America today, because they grew it themselves. … In the richest country in the history of the world, we have food insecurity and hunger among Minnesotans and Americans, which is a disgrace.”

Ellison criticized Washington, D.C.’s response to the food crisis by singling out the Senate’s version of the Farm Bill, which he said would cut $4 billion from the Food Stamp program, cut conservation funding by $6 billion, cut direct payments to farmers, and include cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that would make 280,000 children ineligible for free meals.

“Because it’s called the ‘Ag bill’, many are under the impression that it’s about farms or something,” said Ellison. “Well, the ‘Ag bill’ is inappropriately named. It should be called the Food and Energy bill” — a reference to how much of our corn and soybeans grown in the United States today are used for fuel, not food.

Ellison encouraged food and nutrition advocates gathered at the conference to support the Lets Grow Act, (which would provide grants to turn vacant properties into urban gardens), the Local Farms Food and Jobs Act (which would invest in infrastructure to help schools buy local food), and a resolution in support of SNAP benefits. Ellison also unveiled a letter pressuring Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to distribute existing funding to help food banks.

“We can re-shape what the food policy of our country has been,” said Ellison. “We can promote fair-trade, we can make sure that every child has a meal, we can make sure that every kid goes to school, and has enough to eat while there, so that they can learn, and grow up and develop and contribute to society.”

The Minnesota Congressman and Co-chair of the Progressive Caucus concluded with a rally cry and allusion to the nation’s first African-American congresswoman, and food advocate, Harlem-native Shirley Chisholm. Ellison recounted how Chisholm was banished to the Agriculture Committee.

“And these racist, sexists played a trick on her, and they put her on the Ag Committee. And they all were yucking it up until she discovered that’s where food stamps and nutrition are. She turned the tables on them. I want you to be like Shirley Chisolm, and lets turn the tables on these guys.”

Jacob Wheeler

In addition to shooting videos for The UpTake, Jacob Wheeler is a contributing editor at the progressive political magazine In These Times, publishes the Glen Arbor Sun in his native Michigan, and authored "Between Light and Shadow," a recent book about the Guatemalan adoption industry. Wheeler's stories have appeared in such magazines as the Utne Reader, Earth Island Journal, Rotarian and Teaching Tolerance magazine, and newspapers including the San Francisco Chronicle and Christian Science Monitor. He speaks fluent Spanish, German and Danish.

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