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Food System Critic Raj Patel Speaks At Sacramento State's Bridge Dinner


Sacramento State is hosting its first farm-to-fork dinner Wednesday on the Guy West bridge above the American River. Raj Patel is the guest speaker at the event. Patel is a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin and author of Stuffed and Starved - a book about the global food system. 

Patel spoke with Capital Public Radio about food insecurity in America.

CapRadio: How did you first become interested in the food system, how old were you and what can you tell us about that?

Patel: My name Patel is a word that means “land owner” in India. My ancestors were farmers. In London now, where I was born...I grew up surrounded by the worst of food, from my earliest memories of playing in a stockroom of a convenience store.  But I got interested in the food system in the way I experience it now when I was in India and I was only 5 years old. But I remember seeing extreme poverty and extreme hunger on the street and there was a girl begging...I was terribly upset by that and continued to be upset by it.  When we came back from India, I started renting out my toys so we can give the money to the hungry. But for as long as I can remember, I’ve been troubled by the fact that some people have food and other people don’t. I’ve been working on this for decades and there is no good reason why some people have food and other people don’t. Having recognized that there’s no good reason for that I’m spending my life now dedicating myself to demolishing the bad reasons and making sure that we don’t have a world where there are some people with a lot of food and some with none.

CapRadio: As the guest speaker for Sacramento State’s Bridge dinner, what’s one of the ideas you’re hoping to plant in the minds of students and faculty here?

Patel:  I’m hoping that I won’t have to plant it. But more cultivate the ideas that, at some level, we all understand that going hungry in America is about poverty. It’s not about a shortage of food in this country, we have more food than we know what to do with. It’s important to recognize that poverty and hunger in America is something that’s far more widespread than people recognize. One in two children at some point, in their youth, will require federal assistance in order to be able to avoid food insecurity. That pervasive quality of hunger in this country at a time where clearly there’s enough wealth to support billionaire candidacies and at a time where there shouldn’t be a good explanation for why it is that so many people are in poverty. That’s something that I’m keen to insist on, insist on the idea that poverty is an issue that lies behind hunger and poverty is something that we can do something about.

Other Interview Highlights:

On SNAP, the federal government's government assistance program ...

Patel: In the short term, it’s important to recognize the majority of SNAP recipients run out of the meager amount of food that’s afforded through SNAP, usually two weeks into every month. Eighty percent of SNAP recipients run out of SNAP benefits before the end of the month and certainly within two weeks. So, increasing SNAP is important but that’s not going to fix the deeper issues around poverty. SNAP is a band aid on poverty, it doesn’t fix poverty, it just makes it more survivable. A war on poverty isn’t a bad idea.

On corporations and food advertising ...

Patel: There’s a great deal of marketing directed at shaping our tastes, shaping our preferences, our consumption decisions...if you’re a rational consumer, what advertising does is give you information to help you decide one way or another...But that argument doesn’t hold when it comes to children. Children are not rational consumers, we don’t let children vote, for example, because we don’t feel that they’ve reached the full level of rationality where they can make and own the consequences of their own decisions...But we do allow advertisers to approach our children directly wherever they are and to make them want things.

Restricting the right of corporations to insert ideas into the heads of our children to consume things that are overly processed strikes me as a very good way of restricting the consumption of fast food items particularly among a population that doesn’t know better.

On who is picking America's fruits and vegetables and the plight of farm workers ....
Patel: If we’re thinking about food grown in the United States, particularly fresh fruits and vegetables, chances are, the person picking it was a person of color. We’ve been hearing a great deal about immigration in this election but it’s an idea of immigration and the abstract. A discussion of immigration is really about white supremacy rather than about the reality of the food system of the United States premised as it is on low-paid migrant workers.

It’s much easier to talk about how delicious this tomato is than talk about how exploited that worker is. If there’s a way of fusing the two, it’s this. Once you understand and appreciate how much work it takes to get you your delicious tomato, knowing that the workers behind it are treated with dignity, that the families are treated well, that they weren’t exposed to pesticides, all of that makes the tomato that much sweeter.

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