Spam is the New Steak

The depression is already here.

Item 1: The young man in line ahead of us at the discount store had about fifty cans of generic pressed meat with an awful yellow label. He ducked his head. He was embarrassed. It wasn’t even brand-name Spam, but as we stepped forward the cashier said with an ironic twist, “Spam is the new steak.”

Item 2: Going to work today I sat in traffic on a two-lane road, one lane was blocked by a stalled car. We haphazardly took turns alternating lanes. When I got the chance to pass, I saw the driver and passenger on the sidewalk. One carried a plastic gas container. They had not made it to the gas station.

Item 3: My friend who conducts focus groups tells about mothers in an urban neighborhood talking about diabetes. About her neighborhood grocery, one mom says “The bananas are black (overripe) and cost too much.” The mothers are hard pressed for money for food and their local market doesn’t offer fresh vegetables so they go to an easily accessible fastfood place and buy their kids dollar value meals.

Make no mistake. If you are earning minimum wage, or maybe a little more, the depression is here. Gasoline, milk and other essentials are beyond reach. You substitute pressed meat for hamburger, spend money on gas to get to work and forgo food, and buy cheap hamburgers instead of milk.

Health concerns be damned. Gas tanks and hungry bellies must be filled. You have to work. And if you can get high cholesterol food and sugar water to drink for a buck, you do it.

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) says food choices “are often not an issue of nutrition, but of economy.” The group points out that “Federal agricultural policies have contributed to dramatic changes in the U.S. food supply, leading to public health concerns including obesity, malnutrition and diet-related disease; access to and affordability of healthy foods; and health effects from particular animal and crop production methods. Agricultural policies determine which crops the government will support. This support influences which crops U.S. farmers produce, those crops’ prices and, subsequently, which products food processors, distributors and retailers ultimately will get onto our plates and into our mouths.” Public policy finds expression in the bellies of a hungry children.

The New York Times reports that gasoline costs have eaten deeply into the pockets of low wage workers in rural areas where jobs are scarce and spread out across wide swaths of geography. The Times article quotes Fred Rozell of the Oil Price Information Service, “These are people who have to decide between food and transportation.”

A report released this morning by the Annie B. Casey Foundation says the percentage of underweight babies born in the United States has increased to its highest rate in 40 years.

It’s about priorities. Personal and public. But some personal priorities are determined by policies that create realities to which we can only react. We don’t make policy. We depend on government, and lately it’s pretty clear the federal government  has not been notably concerned about the common good and it’s abundantly clear this government has badly misplaced priorities.

According to the National Priorities Project in 2007 the Iraq war cost Tennesseans, for example, $2.1 billion, an amount that could have provided health care for 442,819 people.

According to National Priorities, forty percent of 2007 income tax dollars went to the military while a mere four percent went to education.

The Network for Spiritual Progressives has proposed a new version of a global Marshall Plan. It calls for “the advanced industrial countries of the world [to] use their resources to eliminate once and for all global poverty, homelessness, and hunger; provide quality education and health care for all; and repair the global environment. As an initial commitment, we want the U.S. to donate at least 1-2% of its Gross Domestic Product each year for the next twenty (though the amount may be less if other countries join in the effort, more if they do not).”

It is a call for a new bottom line, as Rabbi Michael Lerner has stated it, one that measures compassion and justice.

We’re seeing the results of the old bottom line, hyper-individualism that ignores the common good and consumption that can never be satiated. We’re seeing poverty increase and public education decline. We’re seeing low wage workers choosing between food and fuel. For low wage workers the depression has arrived. And now we’re seeing middle class families fearful they’re only a paycheck away from homelessness, and many who have lost their homes.

Public policy can make this different. There is no justification for a child in the United States, Zimbabwe or anyplace else to go hungry. In a world of abundance, there is no excuse for a global food crisis.

But those who care will need to reclaim the values that the biblical writers have called us to honor for centuries. And we will need to speak about these things as if they truly matter as traditional values. And we will need to vote our priorities and hold politicians who make policy accountable.

There may be no more urgent need than for us to reclaim our understanding that we are all connected to each other and the well-being of any one one of us in the human family  affects all of us. We must reclaim our responsibility for the common good, for each other and for every child. It’s just plain embarrassing that Spam is the new steak.

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