By Prof. George Kent
November 2018 – There are many guidelines for dealing with specific nutrition problems (No Wasted Lives Coalition; 2018; World Health Organization 2013; 2016). Often treatments are delivered by specialists through community-based nutrition programs. Some are initiated and designed by outside experts and are community-based only in terms of their geographic location. Some community-based programs involve local people in implementation. In some cases, nutrition programs are initiated and carried out by people in the local community (Shantha and Shrimpton 2017). It is important to recognize that the need for such interventions is likely to be far lower when the community itself is healthy.
Why is it that people interested in the hunger problem talk so much about global hunger and look to global agencies for remedies? It might be more useful to recognize that all hunger is local and can be addressed at the community level.
When dealing with nutrition, often the unit of analysis is individual people, but here we shift perspective and speak about the health of communities. There is more to the health of communities than the summation of the health indicators of the residents. The community can be viewed as a whole, as if it were a living thing. This approach follows the lead of people who look at the earth through the Gaia perspective, the view that “humanity constitutes a living system within the larger system of our Earth”:
Take the living system most intimately familiar to all of us: the human body. We’ve long known that our bodies behave as a community of cells, which are organized into organs and organ systems. The central nervous system functions as the body’s government, continually monitoring all its parts and functions, ever making intelligent decisions that serve the interest of the whole enterprise. Its economics are organized as an equitable system of production and distribution, with full employment of all cells and continual attention to their wellbeing. The immune `defence’ system protects its integrity and health against unfamiliar intruders. It can be thought of as a kind of global political economy with organs as bioregional units, their different tissues as communities, cells as families or clans, and the organelles within cells as individuals. Physiologically we can see that the needs and interests of individual cells, their organs and the whole body must be continually negotiated to achieve the body’s dynamic equilibrium or healthy balance. (Sahtouris 1998; also see Lovelock 1995)
Communities can be viewed as organs, carrying out specific functions within a larger organism. They are small units of human social organization, embedded within other layers such as the state or province, the country, the region, and the world. Communities have many different kinds of systems within them and various sorts of inputs and outputs. They interact with their surrounding world in many ways.
In the Gaia perspective, “the future of agriculture is not in more aggressive breeding, more powerful pesticides, or the further conversion of living soil into an industrial output. It is in knowing soil as a being and serving its living integrity, knowing that its health is inseparable from our own (Eisenstein 2018).”
There are many forms of malnutrition, some of which result from the fact that the food industry is less interested in public health than in producing private wealth (Kent 2018 ; 2019). The food industry often delivers products that are not good for the consumers’ health (Monteiro et al. 2018). The most serious form of malnutrition, hunger, affects more than 800 million people (Food and Agriculture Organization 2018). The World Food Programme says the major causes of hunger are the poverty trap, lack of investment in agriculture, climate and weather, war and displacement, and unstable markets (World Food Programme 2016). The WFP and other global agencies that deal with nutrition issues speak about things like deficits in land availability, water, seeds, knowledge, and trade opportunities. Apparently, they don’t see that the major problem might be a deficit in caring.
The WFP is regularly disappointed by the weak responses to its appeals for funding to deal with extreme hunger situations. This weak response cannot be explained by the factors in its list. The global agencies rarely mention the difficulties that result from indifference and exploitation. They do not appreciate that at its root, hunger is a social problem, heavily influenced by human relationships.
Hunger arises when people don’t have adequate control over their own life circumstances. Where people go hungry, we can be sure that others are controlling the resources around them and shaping the terms on which they live. The others are serving their own interests, not those of the hungry. People need power, individually and in community with others, to shape their own lives and live in dignity.
Communities can function well even if they have little money. Throughout history, many people have “lived largely outside the money economy. In a small village in India or Africa, most people procured food, built dwellings, made clothes, and created entertainment in a subsistence or gift economy, without much need for money (Eisenstein 2018).”
Just about everyone who goes hungry is poor, but not everyone who is poor goes hungry. Where people care about one another’s well-being and about the environment in which they are embedded, few people go hungry. This is true even in poor and in so-called primitive societies. Karl Polanyi recognized this:
It is the absence of the threat of individual starvation which makes primitive society, in a sense, more humane than the market economy, and at the same time less economic. . . . . [A]s a rule, the individual in primitive society is not threatened by starvation unless the community as a whole is in a like predicament. . . . destitution is impossible: whosoever needs assistance receives it unquestioningly. . . . There is no starvation in societies living on the subsistence margin. (Polanyi 1944, 171-172)
George Kanahele said the same thing about pre-contact Hawai‘i:
The starkest forms of famine occur in much more harsh natural environments than Hawaii’s and, ironically, in part as a result of the industrialism which makes marginal economies dependent upon international political and economic events over which people in such economies have no control. We cannot honestly imagine absolute hunger occurring among the families dwelling in a self-sufficient ‘iliahupua’a in the days of old. (Kanahele 1986, 324)
Others put it this way:
When a community functions well, it is because of the active solidarity among its members. People look out for each other, help each other . . . When individuals slip into poverty it is not simply because they have run out of money–it is also because their community has failed. (Dessewfy and Hammer 1995)
Caring communities are the ultimate safety net. This is well illustrated by the state of Kerala in India. It has more equitable distribution of food between income groups and within families and better access to and utilization of health care despite its being poorer than most other states in India (Banik 2007, 4). Kerala’s people live together well on every dimension, not just in relation to food and health issues (Nair 2016).
Kerala’s state government formulates and implements its social policy in close consultation with the poor (Banik 2011, 96), clearly indicating the government’s care for the poor. This contrasts with the states in India that show “disdain for the poor” or “seldom attempt to monitor the nutritional status of vulnerable groups” or where “the entire administrative response is geared toward denying allegations of starvations deaths . . .” (Banik 2011, 99). There is no easy way to measure caring, but sometimes its presence or absence is obvious.
There can be serious food supply issues when geophysical hazards such as earthquakes and floods occur, or when armed attacks suddenly disrupt local food systems and entire communities. However, in stable communities, hunger usually results from exploitation, where some people profit excessively from the fruits of other people’s labor. When people have decent opportunities and can enjoy the full benefits of their own labor, they live adequately. They do that even in harsh physical environments (Jara 2018). Where physical and social environments are too harsh to sustain life, people try to move elsewhere. In exceptional circumstances, hunger can occur anywhere. But even a brief survey of stable intentional communities throughout the world (Dregger 2016) would lead to the confident belief that in those places no one goes hungry.
The pre-modern lifestyle is still functioning in much of the world. Caring in communities is especially important for people who have little money and therefore are more dependent on the people around them. A poor person living among equally poor but caring people will have a much better quality of life than someone with the same income level who lives in an indifferent or exploitative community.
In many high-income countries, there are low-income groups that go hungry. Their problems may be due as much to the absence of caring communities as to the lack of money. In Japan, for example, where increasing numbers of senior citizens are arrested for shoplifting . . .
“Senior citizens shoplift lunch boxes and bread out of poverty, and they also steal because they are lonely and isolated” . . . . Some steal even when they aren’t really hungry because the traditional support system is breaking down and they have become isolated from society . . .” (Nohara and Sharp 2013)
Society’s indifference takes a heavy toll on the isolated elderly.
The good-hearted development workers who focus on remedying hunger when it arises focus on symptoms, not the deep underlying causes of the problem. They should consider the insight of Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe:
While we do our good works let us not forget that the real solution lies in a world in which charity will have become unnecessary. (Achebe 1987, 93)
Why does poverty persist and grow? It is largely due to the dominance of an economic system that is based largely on the exploitation of those with more power of those with less power. There are other ways of organizing relationships, as illustrated in many thousands of small communities in which people really care about one another’s well-being.
Communities can be more or less healthy. Their vital signs might include not only the health of the residents, but also community-level indicators such as economic inequality, the status of the environment, and measures of the quality of social functioning such as crime rates and volunteerism. The key to the healthy functioning of communities is the ways in which people care about others’ and their environments’ well-being. Caring can be defined as acting to benefit others. The term can refer to the action itself or the underlying motivation for it (Kent 2016, 38).
While there are many levels of social organization: global, national, subnational states and provinces, cities and towns, districts, villages, neighborhoods, the focus here is on local communities where people live and connect with neighbors. As a result of their normal day-to-day functioning, caring communities can be expected to deal more effectively with major issues such as conflict, violence, poverty, and environmental pollution and depletion. They are likely to be effective in remedying problems when they occur, and also do well in preventing their occurrence. Hunger and less severe forms of malnutrition are less likely to occur in caring communities, even if their members do not give special attention to the community’s food system.
There have been few systematic efforts to assess the vital signs of healthy communities, but good starts have been made in measuring caring (Engle, Menon, and Haddad 1997; Pilisuk and Parks 1986, 118-140; Singer and Ricard 2015). There is a need for much more study of it. There is not enough caring about caring.
Where local communities function well and are not exploited by outsiders, their people are likely to suffer fewer bad things such as crime and conflict and enjoy more good things such as conviviality, clean environments, and good food supplies. Well-functioning communities are likely to lead to better health among their residents (George et al. 2018).
Caring and the sense of community that goes with it can be reduced by conflict. Caring can be strengthened by providing opportunities for residents to work and play together (Putnam and Feldstein 2003). Social interaction encourages caring (Kent 2013; 2015; 2016).
Genuine human development is about increasing one’s capacity to define, analyze, and act on one’s own concerns. It is not only individuals but also communities that should do this (Kent 1981; 1988). Well-functioning communities are much more than random collections of people who happen to live near one another. In caring communities, there is joint effort toward a shared goal: living well together.
The emphasis should be on community self-reliance, which emphasizes local control, rather than community self-sufficiency, which refers to local production of goods to meet local needs. Self-reliance allows for trade and other kinds of interactions with others according to the community’s best judgment about what would benefit its members and their environment (Kent 2011, 124-132; 2014). It should also include consideration for the well-being of its trading partners.
Alternatives to Intervention
Local communities can be the site of conventional nutrition interventions, but in caring communities there will be less need for them. Just as health does not depend only on medicine, good nutrition status does not depend only on issue-specific remedies. Nutrition status depends in part on the quality of relationships among the people within the community and also on their relationships with others in and from other communities. Those relationships can be strengthened.
Caring generally diminishes in intensity over great distances, whether that distance is geographical, social, religious, or something else. Experts from Rome or Geneva or New York cannot be expected to care as much about malnourished people, on a sustained basis, as those who live around those malnourished people. The strategies adopted by high-level agencies should take that reality into account.
In some community-based nutrition programs organized by the global agencies, the community is viewed simply as the place where people live. How they live, and more specifically, how they relate to one another, gets little attention. The global experts miss the point that to some extent people are better nourished because they live in well-functioning communities. In caring communities, people don’t let their neighbors go hungry.
Increasing attention is now being given to the functioning of community food systems (UC Davis. 2018). However, the focus of this essay is the functioning of the community as a whole., Community food systems are an important part of the larger community. Like an organ in an organism, it contributes to and also depends on the health of the larger system in which it is embedded.
Caring can be strengthened by encouraging community members to spend more time working and playing together in many different ways. Simple actions can be taken to encourage neighborliness (Chapin 2012; Eberlein 2012; Ipsos-Mori 2007; Itkowitz 2016). Even though that is not their purpose, sustained interaction is likely to lead to many other good things, including improved nutrition.
Of course, the impact on nutrition is liked to be greater if the joint activity is about food. Caring and the sense of community can lead to many different food projects, and those projects in turn can help to build the caring and the sense of community (Brown 2013; McMillen 2018; Wilson 2018). Good projects show the presence of caring and also help to strengthen it.
There are many options. For example, farms could be organized as collective community-based enterprises. People could garden together, cook together, and eat together in many different settings. Food-related skills could be strengthened through the sharing of knowledge and hands-on experience. People who are facing difficulties could be offered food packages or meals and could also be given support in learning how to grow food, shop better, and cook for themselves (Pascual and Powers 2012). Community farms could raise food products to meet the community’s own food needs and also produce specialty items for sale outside the community (Sanz-Cañada 2016).
Child feeding at schools could be operated as businesses that benefit everyone involved, including parents who could be employed in the operation (Held 2018). This could be tied in with nutrition and gardening education.
Communities could establish local food policy councils to be permanently attentive to local food and nutrition issues (Burgan and Winne 2012; Food and Agriculture Organization 2011; Food Policy Networks 2016; Kent 2011, 142-153). Studies of the local food situation can stimulate reflection on them (CUNY School of Public Health 2016). If parents are guided in measuring and charting their own children’s height and weight, and they work on this together, they would be likely to gain a good understanding of their children’s nutrition status and act on problems that arise. As children mature, they could be supported in assessing their own nutrition status and figuring out what to do about it.
Ideas for creating a “food commons” might be applied within the community, through cooperative arrangements among farmers, processors, wholesalers, retailers, and consumers (Food Commons 2018; Kent 2019; Vivero et al., 2019). Food procurement policies of schools, hospitals and other institutions could be designed to favor food producers within the community. Systematically collecting and distributing seeds well adapted to the local culture and the local environment can also help to strengthen the community (Hawai‘i Seed Growers Network 2018).
Most food is distributed through conventional marketing methods, but people in caring communities also share their gardens’ produce with their neighbors, or they might share jams, breads, and cakes. Sharing of this sort can be carried to surprising extremes. In the British town of Todmorden, people raise fruits and vegetables and invite others to harvest them even without asking (Graff 2011; Incredible Edible 2018; Warhurst 2012). In South Central Los Angeles, vegetable gardens have been placed in abandoned lots and traffic medians (Finley 2013).
Food sharing is commonplace, especially in low-income communities (Morton et al. 2008). It can be enhanced in many ways, through community festivals and pot-luck meals, perhaps on the basis of a regular schedule. Soup kitchens of various forms could be established (Bayne 2013).
In addition to sharing food, there are always opportunities for sharing information, advice, and encouragement. Gardeners frequently engage in sharing of this sort. Dietary advice can be shared. The Shareable website offers ideas for creative sharing, including many on food Shareable 2018). There are creative ways to facilitate meal sharing (Johnson 2013). The nongovernmental organization Heifer International promotes sharing systematically through Passing on the Gift, a program in which low-income people who receive donated animals “share the offspring of their animals – along with their knowledge, resources, and skills – an expanding network of hope, dignity, and self-reliance” (Heifer International 2018). The sharing of mothers’ milk is supported in systematic ways (PATH 29013; HMBNA 2018).
Sharing can be facilitated by having people set up tables at farmers’ markets to accept people’s excess fruits and vegetables and give them to people who need them (Cave 2013).
Many organizations encourage gardening, including some, such as Gardens for Health International, that promote gardening specifically to prevent malnutrition (Gardens for Health International 2018). Gardening projects might focus on the food that is produced, but the activity can also help to build stronger communities (Schukoske 1999). The American Community Gardening Association is devoted to the idea of building community through gardening (American Community Gardening Association 2018).
Farms, markets, and restaurants could be set up as cooperatives of various forms. There are organizations that can advise on how to set up cooperatives in harmony with local cultural practices and traditions (Kohala Center 2018). Northern Italy demonstrates the benefits of having entire regions organize their businesses as cooperatives (Luna 2013).
Community members can be encouraged to take meals together in various settings, enjoying each other’s companionship. They could also join together in the food preparation work and the cleanup following the meal.
In some places groups of friends take turns hosting meals at their homes in a more or less regular cycle. Some cohousing communities organize frequent common meals (Blank 2014; Villines 2014). Block parties and fiestas also help to build the sense of community.
One observer speaks of “the central role of conviviality: the pleasure of sharing food with others, of celebrating communal culinary traditions and life at large”:
The word ‘convivial’ derives from Latin, where it means quite simply ‘the act of living together.’ We are drawn to conviviality by our need for safety, companionship, and comfort. But in today’s hyper-efficient, fast-paced world, we often sacrifice that which made us human – our fundamental need for food – and the communality that was born of this need. Instead, we rush from one task to the next and eating becomes just another chore to be slotted into our busy schedules. (Middelmann-Whitney 2010; also see Gopnick 2012)
Convivial meals contribute to the nourishment of bodies and also to the nourishment of communities. An observer with Slow Food USA articulates the concept:
Imagine a world in which we can no longer point to the paradox of skyrocketing obesity and skyrocketing hunger as a symptom of injustice, and can instead point to the disappearance of both as a symptom of justice flourishing. I believe the best way to begin is through building meaningful human relationships, through linking people and communities together around a sense of common purpose. Groups of people become communities by sharing work, sharing struggles, and sharing food. This leads to real, personal relationships; a sense of co-dependence and co-commitment. Once you’ve shared a meal with someone, or worked on a project together, you view each other differently. You’re more likely to take care of each other, and, I believe, you’re more likely to stand together and work for change together. (Viertel 2012)
Brazil’s dietary guidelines recommend, “Eat in company whenever possible” (Tsai 2016). Eating together has always been an important factor in social relationships (Kerner, Chou, and Wormind, eds. 2015).
For strengthening the caring, organizing community dinners could be a good starting point. Any individual could launch the effort by inviting a few others to a small planning meeting. The people who show up could discuss the options. They could create a coordinating committee, with an initial division of tasks among them. Through a series of meetings, they could organize the events by having different individuals coordinate different tasks. They might decide to set up once-a-month dinners, open to all, in some appropriate space.
Some local schools might be willing to host regular community dinners. They might have cafeterias along with side rooms that could be used for various purposes. Some schools might be willing to go beyond simply allowing use of the space and become actively engaged in the community dinners project. They could invite students to participate in various ways (Anderson 2018). Some schools might have gardening projects that would welcome community participants.
Invitations to the community dinner could say that everyone who lives in the area is welcome, and everyone is invited to help in arranging the event. Invitees could be told that anyone may come, join in the meal, pay or not pay, and work or not work, as they wish. There could be a sign-up list that would help the organizers estimate how many people to expect.
Wealth of Caring Communities
Community-based food systems recognize that while participants might have little cash income, they have other kinds of wealth such as their labor power, their motivation, and their knowledge of the local culture and the local environment. There is also natural wealth in the local land, water, and sunshine that can be used in sustainable ways. But perhaps most important, in strong communities, people care about one another (McKibben 2008; Pilisuk and Parks 1986). That is an important asset, one we should learn to see.
The inputs to community-based food operations are different from those used by commercial ones, and their managers are likely to have different priorities regarding what are the important results. With their unconventional economics, community-based food operations might be feasible even where commercial operations are not.
People with little money can live together with no one going hungry, as demonstrated in countless places over thousands of years. Instead of focusing on ways to remedy hunger when it occurs, we can we devise ways of living in which the hunger issue does not come up (Dregger 2016).
Hunger in the world is not due to a lack of knowledge about nutrition or a global shortage of food or the resources needed to produce food. There are local shortages of various kinds, but not global shortages. Chronic local shortages are rooted in conflicts of interest about how the earth’s abundant resources should be used. Hunger persists because many people don’t care much about others and many people exploit others.
India has a right to food system that systematically disempowers the poor by making them highly dependent on free food, mostly grains, from the government. It is supposed to be obtained through a very inefficient Public Distribution System. In many areas, relationships among poor people are not good. As a result, when the flow of free food to individuals is interrupted, some of them starve to death (The Wire Staff 2018). In healthy communities, that is inconceivable. No matter how little money they have, most people, and especially poor people, normally do not allow their neighbors to starve to death.
Food systems are social as well as technological, establishing specific relationships among people in the community. Well-designed food systems reflect and strengthen positive caring relationships among the people, and through that means, help to ensure the food security and general well-being of the entire community. The caring that is built up through collaborative food projects is likely to yield many benefits beyond the food itself.
Discussions about how to deal with the hunger issue usually focus on food production and marketing and give little attention to the role of human relations. To end hunger, we have to show how to live together well locally. We need to get beyond talking about it and actually demonstrate it. When we find ways to live together so well that no one goes hungry, we will discover that living in a caring community is itself nourishing and a form of wealth.
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TRANSCEND member George Kent is Professor Emeritus with the University ofHawai’i, having retired from its Department of Political Science in 2010. He teaches an online course on the Human Right to Adequate Food as a part-time faculty member with the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney in Australia and also with the Transformative Social Change Specialization at Saybrook University in California. His recent books on food policy issues are Freedom from Want: The Human Right to Adequate Food, Global Obligations for the Right to Food, Ending Hunger Worldwide, and Regulating Infant Formula. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Academia Website – Google Scholar – Deputy Editor, World Nutrition
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 17 Dec 2018.