Food waste, hunger, and the compulsion of wagedom

Let’s get something straight: Food for all should be a bare minimum goal for any socialist project. There are some resources in this world that are scarce by nature, and some that are artificially scarce. Food in the US is in the latter category, and it is this artificial scarcity that serves as the ultimate driving force for our compliance with the wage-labor system. There is, and almost always has been, enough food to go around in the US, yet people go hungry for two reasons: waste and profit motive.

The USDA estimates that the US wastes 30-40% of its food supply every year, with regional variation. A dreadful statistic when observed under the (debatable) assumption that we are in the best time to be alive since the dawn of history. For all our efficiency increases in farming and distribution, nearly two fifths of the food we produce contributes not to the health of our people, but to our burgeoning landfills. 

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food waste as “the edible amount of food, postharvest, that is available for human consumption but is not consumed for any reason.” This includes spoilage, loss to pests, and a Twinkie truck splattering its cream across the interstate, not just someone eating all but the banana’s stem. In 2010, a staggering one third of food waste occurred at the consumer and retail level. That is, it was conscious human waste. While the USDA has had difficulty updating this statistic, it is unlikely the situation has improved since the original study. One in 10 households in the world’s richest nation in 2021 experienced some form of food insecurity, with average rates varying state-to-state. While the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are interested in reducing food waste through interagency governmental initiatives, they have little to show for it yet.

If the nation is able to waste 30-40% of its food supply every year, and a third of that waste is through carelessness, there’s a good chance that Washington, DC, has some food to spare. Let’s look at some hunger statistics in the nation’s capital.

How one defines hunger and food insecurity varies across methodologies, such as distinguishing between individuals and households, but the broadest metric indicates that 9-15% of the DC population faces hunger as a real threat (as reported in a 2018 FARC Report). DC is certainly not the worst in this regard when it comes to the United States. According to the USDA, Mississippi consistently ranks highest in food insecurity, with 15% of households facing high or very high food insecurity, compared to DC’s 9% by the same metric. While not at Mississippi’s level, it should not be forgotten that DC is the capital of the wealthiest nation on earth, the supposed home of “freedom” and “opportunity.” Well, up to one in seven people here are free to go hungry. It is an absolute embarrassment for anyone to go hungry in the capital, let alone the country. Yet, unless you’re younger than 18 or older than 65, the meager food aid DC’s government provides compels you to work or seek work. 

Everyone has heard of food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This is the primary form of food assistance the DC government provides to its residents, and DC doesn’t even pay for it directly. In brief, SNAP is funded entirely by the federal government, with half of its administrative costs split between the federal taxpayer and that state. SNAP provides funds in the form of an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card to individuals and households that apply and meet income-driven, or means-tested, qualifications. These funds are not as useful as cash becauseEBT can only be used at certain locations to buy certain things. Furthermore, SNAP is not intended to cover all costs for food to those that apply, hence the “Supplemental” in its name. SNAP assumes that those who apply to the program will still spend around 30% of their income on food in addition to funds provided through SNAP. 

Beyond SNAP, DC also provides a webpage, helpfully titled “Food Assistance,” listing other DC food assistance options such as senior dining centers, Free and Reduced Price Meals for school kids, and free lunches in Ward 1 and Wards 4 through 8. 

Outside of SNAP and food aid for children and seniors, the other primary form of food aid available in the District is its network of free food pantries and food banks, namely the Capital Area Food Bank and Bread for the City non-profits. Unlike SNAP, these two non-profits do not have an income requirement, and Bread for the City includes prepared foods, free food delivery, and other wraparound services.

It is appalling that the nation’s capital must rely on charitable efforts to address the most basic needs of its citizens. The lack of a basic guarantee of food to its citizens demonstrates a lack of imagination, political will, and common humanity on the part of our government.

Everyone knows what being hungry feels like, and some of those reading this, including the one writing it, know what chronic hunger and food insecurity is and how it impacts our day-to-day lives. Food and water are the essential basic needs of human existence, and without them we can scant focus on anything else, certainly not finding wages through labor under either the current order or a socialist future. 

Hunger and thirst are the ultimate motivators in our capitalist system and are not what encourage us, but what enslave us to the wage system. If you do not work or do not seek work, the government gives you a basic choice: “Work or starve.” And capitalism’s enclosure and poisoning of the environment has also made it difficult to opt out of this system. In just our city, capitalist industry has poisoned the waterways of the Potomac River watershed, making none of the water flowing through it freely safe for human consumption. Capitalism has shrunk our native reserves of woodlands such that we feel we must protect them through anti-foraging laws in Rock Creek Park, meaning it is illegal to use a food as plentiful as acorns and berries that nature provides. It is next to impossible to exist healthfully in DC without acceding to the wage system or relying on the charity of others. 

There cannot be socialism or the free association of labor if our government, if our people, do not provide the basic needs of humanity to others. Mind you, it is not a matter of whether our government can provide food free of charge to all those who request it, but whether it will. We absolutely have the food, considering we waste nearly 40% of it yearly. We have the means of distribution through existing grocery stores and food banks. We certainly have the money, as the median income of DC is the highest in the nation. What we don’t have is the political will and initiative to allow for the most basic means of existence without wages.

Once food and shelter (the latter not covered here) are assured to all, our society can finally begin to focus on other initiatives, be they personal, social, or political—and maybe, just maybe, we can avoid socio-ecological collapse.

But what can we do now to get from here to there? As individuals, we cannot do much beyond volunteering for the aforementioned non-profits or potentially running for office. As a group our options broaden and their impacts deepen. Together we can organize to encourage supermarkets and other food providers to donate their soon-to-expire or undesired food to food non-profits instead of landfilling them. Together we can lobby our Advisory Neighborhood Commissions to then pressure councilmembers to put bills before the DC Council that provide food services and benefits in addition to SNAP that do not means-test their recipients. 

Without a guarantee of healthful food to all, we will be unable to move forward or effectively organize any form of alternative to the two-party system or capitalism writ broadly.

Ryan Cudemus-Brunoli is the elected Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for ANC 3F01. These views are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the ANC he is elected to.

Related Entries