Why This Pediatrician Wants U.S. to Re-Frame Poverty and Food

Why This Pediatrician Wants U.S. to Re-Frame Poverty and Food

Lack of food or too much of the wrong kind of food can create a wealth of physical and mental health problems. Making matters even worse, society often blames individuals for making the wrong choices. But data shows us that diet related ill health goes hand in hand with inequality and poverty and occurs at disproportionately higher rates for communities of color. In this episode, we talk with Dr. Ben Danielson, a pediatrician with the University of Washington, about the parallels between food banking and healthcare. And, how both systems manage social problems and could benefit from addressing food insecurity systemically at the root causes level.

Host: Christina Wong, Northwest Harvest

Guest: Ben Danielson, University of Washington

Producer: Deborah Hill, Duke World Food Policy Center

Interview Summary

We know the benefits of healthy food and we see ongoing impacts on child health outcomes as a result of food insecurity and family reliance on food charity. In your opinion, what are the key issues that health and food providers need to address?

Well, I think this is an opportunity for us to be a little bit reflective and to step back. I want to ask us all: what is the narrative that we’ve created around food and food charity? What is the story that we’re telling ourselves? Is it a narrative or a story about heroes who are philanthropically giving of themselves to put food in front of folks and the poor destitute who are somehow just waiting for this kind of charity to show up? Are we disempowering some populations and creating super powers in others? What is the story that we’re telling ourselves about food charity? And if we think about that, what is the environment of food and the food and health system that we’re talking about in that narrative?

So I wonder about charity because sometimes in our society, we allow folks with great resource to make their choices about charity in order to help support other parts of our society. When in fact, sometimes those great resources are attained because of avoiding a need to pay taxes, avoiding other parts of supporting our society’s infrastructure. And we sort of pulled away one set of resources and then allowed a certain number of people to provide a small amount of resource in a separate way. And I feel like maybe that is a narrative, a story of heroes doing something heroic instead of a story of a society that everybody cares about each other, everybody has strengths, everybody is making sure that everyone else around them is strong and healthy because that’s the way we all get so much better. So I wonder about this idea about charitable deferral, the avoidance of supporting infrastructure by providing a trickle of resources to other spaces. I wonder about that infrastructure and the wealthiest of wealthy nations shouldn’t we have some basic idea of the components that we should all be should all have a right to, should all be entitled to make sure that we don’t have to worry about? Because I will tell you beyond the caloric issues of food, the worry about food, the preoccupation with wondering about food is just as detrimental to the mind and the body and the soul of folks who deal with food insecurity every day. I wonder about this as a symbolic representation of poverty by creating this space where food is delivered in sometimes undignifying ways to folks whose food security is weak. How we create a strong picture of folks perhaps BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color), in different communities being subjugated, being marginalized. And that marginalization kind of being represented by this delivery of food in this way that we do it. I wonder about what we are accountable to, each of us.

I see in my role as a pediatrician, I watch these amazing kids every day. These incredible kids with just a look in their eye that tells you they can change the world for the better, they have all the skills and tools and hopes and dreams and potential to do something incredible. And all they need from us is the right space, the right environment, the right cultivation to allow incredible things to happen. I wonder how our narrative could be about celebration and optimism and strength and brilliance. And how we are all so much better when every one of us including the people that we never meet have everything they need to do their best.

There has to be a better way. From what you’re seeing from your experiences and what I’m seeing working at a food bank, that there’s a real power imbalance that is being perpetuated by the system. A system that’s designed to help people, but we’re maybe not helping people live to their fullest potential. And I feel like this pandemic has really shed a lot of light on those inequities. During the COVID crisis, food bank providers focused on simply getting food to people. But it has also got us thinking about upstream solutions, such as enacting the right to food in Washington and in other states. What has the COVID crisis revealed for you?

The COVID crisis for me has revealed the need for us to be willing to think with a slightly deeper sense of complexity than the simplicity that we’ve sought in the past around some of our deepest social problems. It’s so important for us to think both in the moment and to think upstream. To think about the intervention and the prevention. About the spaces where people need us in these moments, and the spaces in which our investment in ourselves and in others creates a world where that need does not perpetuate.

I hope that isn’t too vague and sort of up in the sky, but I do think this pandemic has brought out the many ways in which our social and cultural infrastructure has been designed to subjugate people. To hold people down even as we’re doing symbolic acts to sometimes be helpful to people. That the greater system is designed to make sure that a poor person in this country knows that they are poor. For the person who has been poor and their parent has been poor, and the grandparent has been poor, that poverty is more likely to persist because of the way we have designed society. This pandemic has reminded us that we have systems in place, and I must say with shame, especially our healthcare system and our public health system, that are not designed to serve those who are the most harmed by illness, the most harmed by chronic disease, the most harmed by economic deprivation. We have systems that are perpetuating exactly what we’ve seen during this pandemic and have accentuated the differences in this society between those who access to much material resource and those who have been deprived over generations that kind of access.

This is the revealing. The COVID pandemic is not a new set of elements, although it is newly deadly to black and brown communities in ways that it is not as deadly to others. But it is more importantly the great revealer of the many ways in which our society has been infiltratively practicing a disregard and an indignity toward many other people in our society.

So then let’s talk about solutions. What possibilities do you see for improving some of the conditions that you’ve been describing?

I think that we need to reframe our work around making sure that when we are doing things to support those around us, that promoting dignity is one of the most important components of that. I guess you can tell from my conversation, I think we all have a bit of reckoning to do. Each of us has our own personal reckoning to do that has to come with a deep reflection about our role and our place in society. What is the story we’re telling ourselves about those that we see as other from us, not like us, not sharing our particular set of values, life experiences, or even melanin, how do we change that story? Because when you really look around you, what you see is an incredible potential. What is getting in the way? I think part of it is the way that we frame the things that we call problems in our society. Because out of those problems, there is so much more opportunity, there is so much more possibility. Just from a basic resource perspective, we are in countries that have amazing wealth and the potential to make sure that not a single person in those countries needs to be suffering. Not just the suffering of calorie deprivation, but the suffering of indignity. What would happen if when we designed programs to support each other? Based on the brilliance that we know that these communities around us possess, based on the desire that we all feel to make sure that we are treated with dignity and respect, how should we design these programs? We know that everybody should have a right to really making sure that they have the kinds of nutrients that allow their brains and their bodies to function at their best potential level. What should we be making sure every one of us has? It’s ironic to me that as we make decisions that harm other people around us, they ultimately harm all of us. And until we make that fabric, that interwoven connection between us and the person nearest and far from us, we’re not going to make better decisions, until we decide that there’s greater joy and potential and possibility out there than there is deficit or lack or loss, then we’re not going to make strong choices based on that optimism.


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