The Inequality Issue Bernie Sanders Should Rant About
by Alison Dorsi
This primary season for the Democratic Party has been unexpected to say the least. Compared to the Republican Party, the Democrats have had a well-known frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, for over a year before the general election. Bernie Sanders’ trajectory from an independent Vermont Senator to a contender for the Democratic nomination is unprecedented. His focus on addressing issues of inequality in relation to income, race, and education has been at the forefront of his campaign, gaining notable support among young and first-time voters who are attracted to his reputation as a genuine and straightforward candidate that the country so often lacks in high-profile elections.
Much of Bernie’s notoriety has been due to his so-called “socialist approach” to reducing the gap between the rich and the poor, such as making universities tuition free, and breaking up the “too-big-to-fail” banks. He has received intense criticism for these policies, even from members of the Democratic Party, who view them as either too extreme, or politically impractical. All of his policies explicitly aim to redistribute political and economic power, and as president he claims to be ready to take on the special interests that stand in his way. However, when examining the causes of inequality and the solutions to resolve them, it’s easy to see that not all of the solutions have to be so controversial. Surely, both parties can benefit when more people are able to find jobs and live independently, and thus it becomes the role of the future president to overcome the political gridlock and propose policies that obtain bi-partisan support.
One such issue of inequality that no candidate on either side of the aisle has actively discussed is the issue of food inequality. In the U.S., 40% of food produced is being thrown into landfills, while millions of people do not have consistent access to healthy and affordable food. These areas, better known as food deserts, are defined by the American Nutrition Association as “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods…largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.”
To qualify as a food desert, an area must have at least 500 people and/or 33% of the population living more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. This distance expands to 10 miles for rural areas. While many people simply choose not eat their recommended fruits or vegetables, more than 23.5 million people in the U.S. living in food deserts are not afforded the option, and instead are overly exposed to quickie marts and convenience stores that provide food options laden with excess sugar, sodium, and saturated fat. Moreover, when healthier foods are available in these stores or in larger supermarkets, they are often more expensive than the alternative food options and are simply unaffordable for low-income households.
Bernie Sanders is not talking about this, even though it disproportionately affects low-income and minority Americans, key groups that he hopes to help with his policies. The link between poverty and food availability has been well documented for over two decades, and more recently has been shown to disproportionately affect more low-income black and Hispanic neighborhoods than their white counterparts. Limited access to healthy and affordable foods has a negative impact on an individual’s health, most notably resulting in obesity, which has been linked to debilitating health issues, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Moreover, malnourishment beginning at a young age leads to limited mental capacity, causing individuals to perform poorly in school and experience decreased productivity and below-normal work quality. These diseases, over the course of a lifetime, become very costly to individuals, with reduced wages due to increased sick days and slower career advancement, as well as increased medical costs. As large communities of people are unable to succeed in school or at their jobs, their likelihood of building a successful career or at a minimum earning a livable wage significantly decreases. This creates a cycle of poverty in many communities — and Bernie Sanders is not talking about it.
Often vendors no longer wish to sell food because it is mislabeled or it has small blemishes. However, at the time of disposal the majority of the food remains safe to eat, but is not available to those who would eat it. There have been many solutions to alleviate this problem; most notably redirecting unwanted but still high quality food from grocery stores to food banks and organizations that create compost. One company, The Real Junk Food Project based in the U.K., has even based their entire food supply for their cafes on this unwanted food. Their cafes are staffed by experienced chefs who ensure that all of their food adheres to environmental and health regulations. Moreover, the cafes are “pay as you feel” meaning that customers are able to receive entire meals at a cost they can afford, although the clientele isn’t limited to the homeless or needy, but rather includes people who go in for the good food and even better cause. This “pay as you feel” sentiment could be replicated in other settings, and would resonate well with Bernie supporters, who believe that all should have access to the same essentials at a price each can practically afford.
Bernie should be no stranger to initiatives to combat food waste, as his state of Vermont is the first and only U.S. state to pass a universal recycling law that includes food products. The law passed unanimously by the Vermont Legislature in 2012 was in response to more than 60,000 tons of food being direct to landfills every year, 30–40% of which was estimated to have been edible. To date, food rescue is up 30% from the start of the program; food-rescue partnerships with retail establishments up 209%; and food recirculation has reached an estimated 153,000 people, or 24% of the Vermont population.
In addition to providing healthy food for people in need, redirecting unwanted food reduces the amount of produce that ends up in landfills, an outcome beneficial to Bernie’s fight against climate change. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, food waste is the second largest component of municipal solid waste sent to landfills in the U.S., accounting for 18% of the waste stream. Diverting food waste not only conserves limited space for landfills, but also helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as food waste breaks down into methane, which is shown to have a warming potential 21 times that of carbon dioxide. Bernie supports the research that contends that climate change is caused by human activity, and insists that the U.S. must act boldly before the situation gets much worse. With these initiatives, Bernie could start his environmental brigade by reducing landfills by almost one-fifth of their current levels.
There are a number of important issues that do not get discussed on the campaign trail, but tackling food inequality falls directly in line with the presidential initiatives that Bernie promotes In many respects, food inequality is an issue that should garner significantly positive support for him in both the primary and general election, as it is addresses the roots of poverty, global warming, and inequality in an uncontroversial and bi-partisan manner. Bernie has a unique advantage in discussing this particular proposal, as his state is leading the way to eliminate food waste, and he can capitalize on his contacts in their legislature to develop similar programs across the country. As Bernie’s policies are often criticized for being expensive, advocating for food redistribution would balance these other initiatives by expanding upon existing programs that alleviate the burden of waste disposal and provide much needed food supplies for millions of people. The research is substantial, the resources are ready, and the need is obvious, but where is Bernie Sanders?
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