Proposed: A Constitutional Right to Food Access

In this Arsenal For Democracy mini-series, we propose new, progressive Constitutional rights. Part II: A right to food access, by De Ana.

In the United States, food – and access to it – is a highly political subject. Dietary fads of more affluent citizens can greatly affect the access poorer citizens have to staples. Food deserts can cause financial or other burdens, as well. The largest Federal program to help address some of these challenges for the neediest citizens, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), has struggled to keep pace with various developments.

There needs to be an overhaul on how Americans access food. It is a universal human right that every person should be guaranteed the right to obtain nutritious food, regardless of means or geographic location. How do we secure this right?

Combating food deserts

Food deserts – concentrated areas without nutritious fresh foods widely and affordably available – are becoming more and more common in poorer areas. People who are stuck in these deserts are forced to buy mostly processed foods that contain preservatives that can be bad for your health. Access to fresh fruits and vegetables comes at a price in a food desert. The tradeoff is either the cost of traveling to a grocery store outside of their neighborhood or the cost of paying hiked-up prices for fruits and vegetables at non-grocery stores, such as corner stores or bodegas. Things like grocery stores, Farmer’s Markets, and neighborhood gardens need to be brought back to these neighborhoods to cut down on that cost.

Helping to pay the grocery bill

But what good is having access to food if you can’t afford it. The SNAP program, formerly known as food stamps, is supposed to be a supplemental program that helps needy people pay for groceries. Eligibility for the program, however, is based on the Federal Poverty Limit. This hasn’t been revamped in over 50 years. Worse, in its inception, it was only really a loose guideline for what should be considered the poverty line in the United States. Back when the FPL was officially introduced, many households only had one source of income, and it was assumed that each household would have two parents. Nowadays you’re more likely than a half century ago to have either single-parent households or two parent households where both adults are working. In either case, there are now added expenses for things like childcare which an outdated FPL does not reflect.

In some states, there are even limitations to what kind of food people can buy with SNAP benefits. Some states don’t allow those receiving SNAP to buy hot meals. Other states are considering banning people from getting things like seafood or even hot pre-made foods with their benefits. This creates a problem, because many people receiving SNAP benefits are homeless and don’t have a place to cook or store meals that aren’t already prepared.

Managing food trends

Banning certain types of food because of the belief that those foods are “too good” for SNAP recipients is also unethical – and not just because denying people the right to buy food is cruel itself. Due to “food gentrification” and food trends, foods that were once inexpensive can become suddenly very expensive. Seafood like lobster, for example, was once a cheap maritime staple food for the poor, but it transitioned into being a luxury food. More recently, if you look at how the rise of quinoa in the United States has caused it to become increasingly less affordable in places where it’s a staple food like Bolivia, you can see how food gentrification and SNAP limits on “luxury” foods can cause folks to suddenly lose affordable access to core components of their diets.

The right of the people

To fix all of this, the United States and state governments must constitutionally guarantee the people the right to food regardless of means or location. It might read:

“Every person has the right to access nutritious and sufficient food regardless of his or her means or geographic location. The legislature [or Congress] shall make such laws as are necessary to secure this right to all residents.”

To secure that right, governments should enact various measures to:
– Bring Farmer’s Markets and grocery stores back to food deserts
– Expand both who qualifies and what can be received on SNAP benefits.

In a country like the United States, which touts itself as being “well-developed” and “first world,” food should not be a luxury that only a few can afford, but a right for all of us.

Who grows the most Thanksgiving foods these days?

Turkey, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, cranberries, apples, potatoes, green beans, and corn: Where did they originate and which countries grow ’em now? Gobble, gobble.

Plumper_Pumpkin_Patch

The United States is the world’s largest producer and exporter of turkey. Turkeys are an indigenous animal to North America (specifically forested regions of Mexico and the United States). These U.S. states are the top five producers within the country today:

  1. Minnesota
  2. North Carolina
  3. Arkansas
  4. Missouri
  5. Virginia

Pumpkins, squash, and gourds are a collective category covering a wide range of cultivated items. Gourds tend to be Old World in origin — even the pre-Columbian American varieties either migrated across the Bering Strait land bridge from Asian origins or floated across the Atlantic from Africa. “Pumpkins” (the British colonial-era name for a bright orange type of squash) and squash in general are all indigenous to North America. Pumpkins have been found in Mexico for millennia. Today, however, most of the world gets their pumpkins, squash, and gourds from major emerging market producers of the Old World. Notably, though, no African country cracks the top 5 list, despite the inclusion of gourds, but gourds are also very common across Asia:

  1. China
  2. India
  3. Russia
  4. Iran
  5. United States

Sweet potatoes (or yams) are sometimes substituted for pumpkin/squash at the Thanksgiving table or are sometimes included alongside them. Like ordinary potatoes, sweet potatoes were domesticated in South America. Remarkably, however, sweet potatoes made the jump to Polynesian islands in the Pacific well before the Western arrival in the New World, indicating strongly that Polynesian explorers landed in pre-Columbian South America and returned home with the crop. This early start in Polynesia helped sweet potato later become a major crop in nearby southeast Asia, including Indonesia. While China again tops the present-day producer list, this category is Africa’s moment to shine, as several African countries have incorporated yams firmly into their cuisine.

  1. China
  2. Tanzania
  3. Nigeria
  4. Uganda
  5. Indonesia

Cranberries remain strongly associated, in terms of production, with their natural homes in the United States and Canada. The early United States saw the conversion of the wild marsh crop (previously gathered by Native Americans and First Nations peoples) into a farmable wetland production, which began exporting cranberries all over the world, where they caught on. The Russian Empire, in particular, tried its own hand at cranberry production and that legacy can still be seen in the runners-up.

  1. United States
  2. Canada
  3. Belarus
  4. Azerbaijan
  5. Latvia

Apples are one of the few food items commonly associated with modern Thanksgiving that did not originate in the Americas at all, with the exception of crabapples (which are generally not consumed). Wild apples come from Central Asia (including what is now western China) and a wide number of wild species have been domesticated and bred down into various edible selections. China is far and away the largest producer of apples in the world. Distant second-place United States — “as American as apple pie” — has had edible, domesticated apples for less than four hundred years, unlike most of the rest of the modern Thanksgiving selection foods. In fact, apples were not grown in New England until several years after the first Thanksgiving.

  1. China
  2. United States
  3. Turkey
  4. Poland
  5. Italy

Potatoes have become a global staple over the past several hundred years, but they originated in South America. Today, wild species can be found from Chile to the United States, but they all came from a single strain in Peru or Bolivia, which is also where they were domesticated many thousands of years ago.

  1. China
  2. India
  3. Russia
  4. Ukraine
  5. United States

Green beans (known elsewhere as string beans or snap beans) are from Central and South America (domesticated in two separate locations) and were introduced to the rest of the world by Christopher Columbus on his second trip back from the Americas. Today the top producers are:

  1. United States
  2. France
  3. Morocco
  4. Philippines
  5. Mexico

The United States is also, unsurprisingly, the world’s largest producer and exporter of corn (maize), but 97% of U.S. corn production is not for direct human consumption. There are various animal or industrial uses for all that U.S. corn production not going to people. Mexico is a big producer of White Corn, particularly for use in tortillas and other Mexican cuisine. Maize was domesticated over several centuries of careful breeding in Mexico many thousands of years ago, with several varieties from a single strain, and became important to regional trade between indigenous groups. It remains North America’s largest grain crop, and human genetic modification is still a major influence to present day.

Statistical Data Sources: FAOSTAT (2013 top 5 producers data for each crop), AgMRC (Turkey and Corn)

Thailand’s food-robot army is nearly ready

Pre-coup and post-coup, Thailand’s leadership can agree to remain committed to one thing: Shaming overseas restaurants for insufficiently authentic Thai food. And now their food-tasting (killer?) robot is doing well in testing and may soon be sold to high-end restaurants in southeast Asia and beyond:

The government-financed Thai Delicious Committee, which oversaw the development of the machine, describes it as “an intelligent robot that measures smell and taste in food ingredients through sensor technology in order to measure taste like a food critic.”

In a country of 67 million people, there are somewhere near the same number of strongly held opinions about Thai cooking. […] But there does seem to be some agreement on one point at least: Bad Thai food is a more acute problem overseas.

Thais, who can establish an immediate bond discussing where they will get their next meal or the merits of particular food stalls, complain that Thai restaurants overseas cater to non-Thai palates by pulling punches on spice and not respecting the delicate balance between sweet, sour, salty and four-alarm spicy.

 
For designing and building a robot from scratch, the project has a very low price-tag overall and will supposedly be earned back by sales of the robot.

Anyway, the way it works is that it performs a rapid chemical analysis of a food sample, teasing out both the constituent ingredients used and the ratios used, and then it compares it to a database of ingredients and ratios used in a sample “ideal” recipe for that meal — with the ideal as determined by the ratings of a small research study with a hundred or so ordinary Thai people (not food critics).

But I’m pretty sure we all know it’s going to end up chemically analyzing mankind and find us insufficiently spicy to remain alive. And just as Thailand was one of the few countries in the world to resist Western colonialism (more or less), Thailand’s robots will no doubt be the first to take on humanity successfully.

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