All You Can Eat

How Hungry is America? Joel Berg, Seven Stories Press.

Allyoucaneat Cover

Are Americans hungry—or fat? The answer appears to be: both. Over and over again, the media serves up stories about the high percentage of Americans that are overweight and obese. In “All You Can Eat,” Joel Berg—executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger—reminds us that a growing number of Americans are also going hungry. Even more counterintuitive is his argument that hunger actually contributes to the growing obesity problem among low-income Americans, who cannot afford nutritious meals rich in fruits and vegetables and therefore subsist on fast food and processed foods that are loaded with sugar and fat.

According to a 2006 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 16.6 million American households are “food insecure”—a term used to describe households that are “at times, uncertain of having, or unable to acquire enough food for all household members because they have insufficient money….” Berg spends the first two-thirds of his book explaining how polarizing politics, the media, and the food industry contribute to a vicious cycle of mutually reinforcing conditions that perpetuate this problem. Then he lays out an ambitious plan to end domestic hunger. Among other things, Berg suggests combining all existing federal food programs into a single, more efficient entity; offering free meals to all school children; forging partnerships with faith-based organizations to supplement the federal government safety net; and pressuring businesses to ensure they pay workers a living wage. 

For many Americans, hunger seems like an intractable problem. But Berg points out that there was a time when America did solve big problems, and the plan he presents certainly appears sensible, affordable, and realistic. Whether or not America makes hunger a priority and demonstrates the political willpower to tackle the issue remains to be seen. But Berg is optimistic about our near-term prospects, noting that Barack Obama is “the first president in history to have grown up in a family that received food stamps,” and that he has called for “both government and individuals to take more responsibility for social problems.” 

At the same time, Berg is well aware that America's political leadership frequently struggles to get its priorities in order, and that ending hunger would be one of the greatest political accomplishments in our nation's history. “A very good president put the U.S. on a trajectory to the moon,” he asserts. “A truly great president would end hunger in America.”