Feeding Hungry People: An Investigation of US Food Assistance Programs

Open Access
James, Ann
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
September 03, 2014
Committee Members:
  • Lakshman S Yapa, Dissertation Advisor/Co-Advisor
  • Lakshman S Yapa, Committee Chair/Co-Chair
  • William Ewart Easterling Iii, Committee Member
  • Melissa Wright, Committee Member
  • Leif Jensen, Committee Member
  • Amy Glasmeier, Special Member
  • poverty
  • food security
  • food insecurity
  • social policy
  • welfare
  • health
  • food assistance
  • United States
  • post-structuralism
  • food
Many US households struggle to make sure all members have enough food for an active, healthy life. The USDA describes such households that do not have enough as “food insecure,” meaning that they were “at times, unable to acquire adequate food for one or more household members because they had insufficient money and other resources for food” (Coleman-Jensen et al., 2013: 4-8). In 2012, USDA researchers estimated food insecure households accounted for nearly 20 percent of all US households. They found that these households included about 33.1 million adults and 15.9 million children (Coleman-Jensen et al., 2013). To help food insecure households get food, the US federal government intervenes in the country’s economy. These interventions are designed to alter the effects of poverty necessarily experienced by some of the people living in an economy that privileges exchange value, profits, and money income over the availability of basic use values, which includes household necessities. These interventions consist of federally-funded programs that supply households falling below a specified income threshold with agricultural commodities, hot meals, and/or cash values in the form of an electronic benefit, essentially a debit card for food aid. I employ the exchange value concepts of supply and demand to examine the federal government’s largest and most costly intervention in food security, the Food Stamp Program (FSP) or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In 2011, the program aided an average of 44.7 million people each month, accounting for about 75 percent of the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) total expenditures for domestic food assistance programs (approximately $75 billion dollars). There are serious financial, political, and social limitations to the federal government’s FSP and problems in general with the exchange value approach to people’s food security. My critique should not be construed as an argument for the discontinuance of food stamps (or SNAP), as this food aid is a vital resource for poor people. Instead, my critique is intended to highlight the need for alternatives to FSP in the long run. In their current form the federal government’s assistance programs are large, expensive to operate, and financially unsustainable. Financial support for these programs varies depending on who is in power in Congress; individuals’ food security should not be held hostage to the vagaries of Congressional politics. Finally, program participants are caught up in a politics of race and class where frequent claims regarding welfare dependency, entitlement mentality, and poor work ethic disrespect them and rob them of their dignity. I propose an alternate and complementary use value approach to food security. Specifically, I argue that household problems of food security may be resolved through the production of basic foods in proximity to poor people, which I refer to as a post-structural intervention. I use a well-developed theory of bio-intensive farming to show that land, labor, and capital do not limit the ability of the poor to produce nutritious, affordably priced food in the city. I support this argument with a series of maps related to urban farming in Philadelphia.