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Life or Debt: Food is a Human Right

On November 1, almost 20% of the population of the United States (around 50 million people) will get a significant reduction in their access to food because of cuts to SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Most people who rely on SNAP benefits will not be notified ahead of time because there is no requirement to do so. Some states may voluntarily notify affected populations, but most won’t bother. Imagine having your food budget worked out month after month, and then one day, out of the blue, there is less money than you expected, a good deal less.

By now most people who have the luxury to ponder such big questions are aware that debt including medical debt, credit card debt, and payday loans contribute to global inequality. Debt keeps the status quo, well, the status quo. Depending on whom you talk to, a conversation about debt may wind down the fascinating rabbit hole of history to the advent of civilization. Or the conversation may take the form of an impassioned plea by a hard working, struggling student or graduate who chose to pursue a dream but woke up to the reality that our current system places many in debt bondage.

Everyone is affected by debt, some more than others. But no one is beyond its power, except of course the 1% who thrive on it. It is a luxury to have access to the kinds of conversations and analyses that would help most debtors understand the system he or she is living in. There is a huge portion of the population without such access. And anyone interested in building a movement of debt resistance or refusal must consider that. Who are those with limited access – both to the money that would keep them out of debt and to the information to help them understand their own exploitation? And how can those with access to more resource connect with them?

The answer is: in the most fundamental way, through food.

Every human being on this planet is born with simple needs. In order of priority they are Air, Water, Food, and Community. The fourth need, community, is where society, government, politics, art, creativity, science, transportation, healthcare, education, housing, and love all exist. The first three are physical needs for survival without which the fourth need, community, cannot be met. It is through our attempt to meet these needs that humanity is divided into factions to be picked at like ripe fruit for the financial benefit of a few.

Food is a fundamental need and access to that food determines how much of our energy in life can be spent improving the world and how much is diverted toward survival. In the face of these complex, artificially created relationships we must connect and wield power over those that would strip humanity of everything except profit. Complex analyses of the relationships between debt, capitalism, community, and the individual are a critical component of the struggle to regain humanity in this world. But as we explore these theories, we must also simplify the solutions we implement.

The major struggles in society center around the needs of humans, not our complex understandings of those needs. And the struggle for food is one of the most fundamental struggles for all but a small percentage of people. While hunger may be less of a problem in the U.S. than in some other places, it is all around us. And it is getting worse. I have heard many times that we won’t see true change in our economic system until more people start going hungry. This sounds like a reasonable prediction to me, and we may find out how accurate it is sooner rather than later.

On February 13, 2009, Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, also known as The Stimulus. One provision in this package was a 13.6% increase to food stamps, known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). The Stimulus was one step taken in response to the growing economic crisis that began after the 2008 crash. It was employed in addition to the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, which gave 800 billion dollars directly to the bankers who caused the crisis. We may not know the full impact of what the bankers did to all of us for decades. But what we do know is that they are profiting from the poverty that they helped create.

And we know that hungry people across the country are going to be affected very soon.

On November 1, 2013, the 13.6% increase to SNAP will expire. Thanks to federal deficit fear mongering, no one in Congress is willing to push for an extension. And why would they? People on food stamps are not known as a voting bloc with much power, even though they would have the numbers to change just about anything in this country if organized.

For those of us on SNAP, we don’t have to imagine what this reduction will feel like. I can attest to the rage and – to be honest – to the terror that occurs when your access to food is meddled with. Living in New York City and attempting to buy food on SNAP is no easy task as it is. Of course the healthier you eat the more expensive food is, so this results in many people eating unhealthily so they can survive.

This brings us back to where we began.

Debt affects everyone. But what does a collective response look like? There are 50 million people in the U.S. about to see a reduction in their access to food. Some of them may not have yet been included in the conversation. But on November 1, they will probably be more open to discussing how we can come together in this struggle for survival. Of course my revolutionary imagination runs wild with ideas of bringing back the Black Panther Party’s food programs, organizing community based food co-ops, or having a People’s Food Assembly. But at the very least we need to include the communities most affected by debt in our conversations, and the reduction of SNAP benefits is a tragic opportunity to do exactly that. There is no more fundamental human right than the right to eat, to live, not just survive. And debt in its myriad of forms is most directly experienced when it results in limited access to food. After all, everyone eats.

Originally published on

Sean McAlpin

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