On Plenty and Poverty: Thinking About Food at Thanksgiving

BY Ray Suarez  November 23, 2011 at 1:18 PM EDT


Photo by Flickr user Katie Tower.

It’s the kind of conversation that sticks with you — I was talking to a young father who sells shoes on a patch of public park in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. He buys shoes from a middleman, and the razor-thin gap between his cost and his sale to a passerby forms his profit for peddling his wares 10 hours a day.

When he sells four or five pairs of shoes it’s a good day. He can feed his wife and two young daughters and keep a roof over his head. When he has the kind of day any businessman has lived through, with few browsers and no sales, what happens?

“I have to borrow money to eat, and hope I sell enough shoes tomorrow to pay the money back and buy food tomorrow,” he told me.

That’s what living really close to the edge is like. There is nothing to fall back on. There are no savings to dip into. If there’s another bad day, the shoe peddler told me, he has to sell things from his house to pay for food.

I am a peak boomer, born in the late 50s. Growing up I was reminded by my parents from time to time to be grateful for a plate with plenty of food on it, because there were little kids like me in China, or India, or Africa — depending on the year– who would be glad to eat my food.

A wise guy from early on, I might ask a few follow-up questions about whether we could send my food to those places tonight, or if they really liked rice and beans in those places, but the point was made. (And it turns out, after all, that they DO like rice and beans in those places.) In America we produced unimaginable amounts of pretty cheap food. Having enough to eat in too many other places in the world is a much more complicated proposition.

While in this part of the world, we might conclude that having enough was made challenging in those other places by overpopulation, the reality is much more subtle.

Ask yourself: What do people want when they have a little more money in their pockets? One of the simplest and most universal answers? Meat. The old answers to hunger challenges may have involved having fewer children and getting richer, and billions of people have done just that … so what’s the problem? People in China, and Mexico, and Brazil, and Indonesia — hundreds of millions of hard-working people who are now doing better for themselves, and growing more food — want some of the things you may already take for granted, like a fast-food burger at lunch or a cut of pork at dinner. A lot of the increased food production on the planet has gone to feed animals, from the stunningly efficient chickens and goats who cheaply grow and fatten up to the luxurious meal of a global middle class, beef.

And how does my buddy the salesman on the streets of Maputo fit in? He is also part of a new global class, one of the hundreds of millions whose recent forebears were rural farmers who are now part of the global urban poor. They sell you gum while you wait at a red light, sharpen cutlery with a pedal-driven whetstone on the sidewalk outside a food market, or load up carts and use their strong backs to haul a load somewhere in town. In recent years new workers have joined them, charging cell phone batteries or charging the phone-less a few pennies for a call. These jobs have a lot in common. They take little training or education, and need little capital beyond a willingness to work. But they are fragile jobs, leaving workers vulnerable to the slightest shifts in the economic winds.

When the price of food rises, as it does suddenly and often in the developing world, these workers have few choices in response. One of the few ways they can hope to increase their own pay is to work more hours, but when people have less money in their pocket because more of their meager wages go to food, more hours may not help at all. Low-skilled urban workers once had more connection to the farm and could fight food price inflation by growing more of their own. No more. The Mozambican shoe salesman rented an apartment by the week, and had no land to farm.

Earlier this year, Josette Shearan, head of the World Food Program, told me that the old formula for food supply has changed. It used to be that the world was in permanent surplus, and the real problems only came from flaws in distribution and spoilage.

Shearan says it’s just not true any more. Even with the age of the Internet, globalized commodity markets, and more efficient storage and distribution, hunger for many is only a few days of lost earnings away. Not inconvenience, not scrimping, but the kind of hunger that makes workers less productive, and growing children less likely to feed a growing brain to its best potential.

Shearan told me we’re in a post-surplus world now. Supplies of everything are so tight compared to demand that many countries are one natural disaster or one lost harvest away from dangerous food shortages.

We Americans live at the top of the food chain. We can use jaw-dropping amounts of petroleum to support our agriculture. We can use our rich soil and know-how to produce mountains of grain to feed animals on a scale that makes meat meals cheap. Our farmers have access to capital hard to comprehend for a farmer in the developing world, and machines have replaced people on the farm to a degree impossible elsewhere.

I tell you all this not to make you feel guilty as you tuck in to your holiday meal. I tell you all this not to induce some sort of stereotypical liberal guilt. And no, your kids won’t be able to get a drumstick or a piece of pumpkin pie to a kid in Somalia. I tell you all this for two reasons: One is that this weekend you are likely to be the beneficiary of a system you did little to create. The other is that the struggling, striving, Maputo shoe-salesman is connected to you by the humanity you share.

The supermarket crowds you braved to select likely candidates for your casserole from mountains of yams, freezers bursting with pre-basted birds, and stacks of neatly boxed pies are a marvel enjoyed each year by more citizens in the world, and at the same time unreachable by millions of others. A North African herdsman who works damn hard to raise his cattle and get them to market may be plenty smart and never live as well as a knucklehead in the United States.

You can’t run to Maputo to buy a pair of shoes. But that struggling, striving guy in his 20s did not choose to be born in one of the poorest countries on the planet any more than you chose to be born where you were. Luck, caprice, the sheer randomness of human existence leaves hard-working people in their millions unable to take food for granted.

There’s plenty to be thankful for this holiday … spare a thought if you can for the two billion who are hoping to one day worry a little less about where their next meal is coming from.

Read more on our Global Health page.