Friday, April 26

Kitchen to Classroom: When Food Production Hurts

Photo of Annie Mae Gudger, Hale County, AL, by Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
"Kitchen to Classroom" is a weekly dispatch from our postdoctoral fellow, Angela Jill Cooley. You can follow Professor Cooley on Twitter at @foodandrace.

Last month, National Public Radio's "Planet Money" program featured Hale County, Alabama, in a story about the nation’s rising disability rates. According to NPR, 1 in 4 Alabamians living in Hale County receive disability benefits. Nationally, as the number of Americans on welfare rolls has declined, federal disability payments have increased. Hale County reflects this trend. (The story was expanded into an episode of This American Life, which you can access here.)

The reasons for this rise are varied and complicated, according to NPR reporter Chana Joffe-Walt. But rural areas, such as Hale County, seem to have higher incidences of disability claims because of the predominance of jobs that require physical labor. Joffe-Walt interviewed Ethel Thomas, a Hale County resident, who indicated that she had never seen a sedentary job until she walked into the local Social Security office where disability claims are processed.

So, what does any of this have to do with food? Well, possibly, a whole lot. Historically, the strenuous jobs of rural America involved agriculture. In the 1941 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans document the physically demanding and poverty-stricken lives of sharecroppers living in Depression-era Hale County. At this time, men, women, and children engaged in the hard labor involved in running a farm.

Much of the strenuous labor in rural areas today revolves around producing food. In the 1960s, as sharecropping declined, Hale County became the center of the state’s commercial catfish industry. In fact, Ethel Thomas, a Hale County resident featured in the NPR story, performed physical labor at a local fish plant before her bad back compelled her to go onto disability.

Food access, or lack thereof, in rural areas may also be a cause for the rise in disability claims. Joffe-Walt spoke with several local ministers at a Hale County coffee shop who suggested food as a culprit for poor health in the area. “It’s very hard to find healthy food in Hale County,” Joffe-Walt reports. “There’s a lot of obesity.” In fact, the Social Security Administration indicates that back pain, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease—all of which are exacerbated by obesity—account for many of the diagnoses that result in disability claims.

NPR’s story on Hale County reminds us of food’s prominent, and surprising, role in building individuals and communities. The nourishment and fellowship food often provides can sustain us bodily and spiritually. But the physical labor demanded by our food system and the insufficient nutrition that system occasionally returns can just as easily diminish us.

(It's worth noting that not everyone agrees with Joffe-Walt's analysis. If you're curious, you can read one economist's critique here.)