RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Farmers Can Solve Hunger Problem

Some have started saying “Depression” instead of “Recession,” and that’s giving a boost to the star of Dorothea Lange and other photographers and artists that worked during the dust bowl days of the 1930s. Their images set the impression of great need and helplessness in rural America.

Lange’s most famous image, of a migrant mother and her children, was shot in a few minutes. Lange said, “I did not ask her name or her history ... She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.”

This is a terrible story of helplessness and desperation, but there are other images from the Depression. A recently released book, On the Dirty Plate Trail: Remembering the Dust Bowl Refugee Camps by Sanora Babb, Dorothy Babb and Douglas Wixson, presents photos and writing from Dust Bowl refugee camps by a more intimate observer. The University of Texas book is beautiful, and the stories convey strength and community rather than helplessness.

The Babb sisters spent months in the camps rather than hours. They shared meals, held babies, hung laundry on lines. They observed the effects of government programs to reduce hog numbers and corn acres. They recorded what was going on. They saw that people didn’t give up, no matter how bad the going. Wixson has put their work together in a beautiful and accessible way.

Not too long ago, a neighbor called me and said that her church had a little extra money and they want to give it to somebody. She named a friend of mine, Leah, so I got to tell this little story:

Last Thanksgiving, when the churches were on the lookout for poor people, one of them decided to drop a box of food off with Leah, whose family consists of two adults and five little tiny children.

So the good church people carried the box across the yard. They didn’t see Leah’s perfectly tended vegetable garden, and they didn’t go in the basement and see the freezer full of deer meat and the jars of canned vegetables.

She met them at the door. She saw their eyes glistening with generosity and, not wanting to spoil the fun, accepted the box. In it, cardboard boxes of industrial food with bright logos and pictures. She thanked the church, waved them out, had a fine time looking at the nutritional panels, then she called me.

“What am I going to do with this?” Leah said, naming off the brand names. “I wouldn’t eat it, wouldn’t feed it to my kids. Do you think I could take it to …” and she named Daniel, a step lower on the income ladder. While Leah’s husband has a job, Daniel makes money doing yard work and fixing up old cars to re-sell.

Since he and I had just gathered firewood and had a good chat, I knew his household was OK.

Leah and I kicked the issue back and forth and she decided to call someone that works at the food pantry. Our county has a 10% hunger rate, but our neighbors have been working on self-sufficiency and neighborliness for more than a decade and we keep pretty good track of each other.

I told my church lady friend that the best thing to do is to hire neighbors to do things. Daniel could cut the grass, even if it costs more than using a church member to do it. But my church friend said they’d rather save the mowing money and give it to somebody that needed it.

You, dear reader, can quickly see the fallacy, but the bottom line is that we need to learn to take care of each other. Holding onto money, stocks, or real estate, or gold, isn’t going to take care of us. Providing a Thanksgiving meal of packaged goods isn’t going to feed us.

We can’t import our way out of hunger and human need, and we can’t export our way to prosperity. Importing and exporting supply a few jobs in a few areas, but the infrastructure and energy come from the wider society and only provide for a few. And, to make matters more complex, once the means of production are out of our hands and in the hands of traders, we’re out of luck.

Hunger is a new thing for my rural county. The old geezers look at each other and say, “We didn’t know we were poor …,” talking about the Great Depression. Those were the days before TV and movies showed how rich one could be and proved who was poor.

Of course there are people so debilitated that they can hardly get around. For these folks, a good solution is for non-profits to pay for community-supported agriculture. One group I know is buying a box a week from a local farmer and delivering it to a women’s shelter.

This keeps local farmers in business and they’re valuable.

More than valuable, essential to the economic recovery.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2009

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