Outside the small town of Somerset, 70 miles southeast of Pittsburgh and just a twenty-minute drive from field where Flight 93 plunged to the ground on 9/11, doctors and nurses provide around-the-clock medical care to more than 100 elderly and chronically ill men, offering them everything from nutritional support to end-of-life care.
The patients exhibit many of the same ailments as patients in any other long-term care facility in the state, including respiratory ailments, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and pulmonary disorders. But they share one significant difference: These patients are under the care of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, and even if their prognoses were to miraculously improve, many of them will still die behind these walls.
Welcome to the State Correctional Institution at Laurel Highlands, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s only prison that is specially tasked with handling what is becoming a serious problem across the state and the nation: a surge in the number of sick and elderly prison inmates.
According to a report from Human Rights Watch released last month, the number of senior citizens under American correctional supervision is higher than it’s ever been, and growing at an alarming rate. The study found the number of state and federal prisoners that are 55 or older — the official threshold for old age behind bars — grew at six times the rate of the overall prison population between 1995 and 2010. The number of prisoners over 65, meanwhile, surged 63 percent — or 94 times the rate of the general prison population — in the three years prior to 2010.
Jamie Fellner, a senior advisor at Human Rights Watch and the author the report, blamed the increase on “tough on crime” policies such as mandatory minimum sentences, three-strikes laws and the now more than four-decades-long War on Drugs.
“Prisons were never designed to be geriatric facilities,” she said, “yet U.S. corrections officials now operate old age homes behind bars.”
The graying of Pennsylvania’s prisons
The Keystone State has not only followed the trend, it has exceeded it. According to HRW, Pennsylvania has the second-highest proportion of geriatric inmates in the nation, behind Oregon. At the end of 2010, there were 8,462 inmates in Pennsylvania’s prisons over the age of 50, representing 16.5 percent of the inmate population. A decade ago they made up less than 10 percent of all prisoners. Inmates over the age of 40, meanwhile, now represent more than a third of Pennsylvania’s total prison population.
“We have a lot of elderly prisoners because we tend to have longer sentences, and we have one of the largest populations serving life without parole, and who will be there until they die,” explained William DiMascio, executive director of The Prison Society, the nation’s oldest prisoner advocacy group. “As these prisoners get older — and they get older earlier because prison life is just harder than it is for people on the outside, so people tend to break down sooner — we hear of all kinds of problems mostly relating to access to health care.”
Pennsylvania is one of six states that denies parole to lifers, and according to the Sentencing Project, has the second highest percentage of inmates serving life without parole, behind Louisiana.
The number of people of all ages locked up in Pennsylvania has grown more than five-fold since 1980, and now exceeds 51,000 — with nonviolent offenders accounting for the bulk of the increase, according to Department of Correction statistics. Over the same period, spending per inmate has nearly tripled, and funding for the state’s prison system is now our third largest expense behind medical assistance and education. Health care costs average three to four times higher for inmates over 55 than for younger inmates, studies show.
Last year, Auditor General Jack Wagner joined lawmakers including Republican State Senator Stewart Greenleaf, a former Montgomery County prosecutor, in calling for an aggressive reform program that seeks to trim the prison population by promoting alternative-sentencing programs, among other things.
“While most economic sectors in the commonwealth remain mired in recession, prisons remain Pennsylvania’s largest growth industry,” Wagner said.
A reform bill sponsored by Greenleaf that would institute some of those changes passed the Senate and is currently making its rounds in the House. In the meantime, Pennsylvania is busy building three more prisons and expanding nine others, to the tune of $685 million.
Not your average old age home
SCI Laurel Highlands was opened in 1996 in buildings that once housed Somerset State Hospital to provide specialized services unavailable in the state’s other 23 adult male prisons (there are not nearly as many elderly or infirm female prisoners, who are housed at the state’s two female prisons, Muncy and Cambridge Hills.)
A minimum security facility, Laurel Highlands houses 1,382 inmates, according to the DOC, 412 of whom are over 50. The rest are younger inmates who require special medical treatment and healthy prisoners who work in food service, maintenance and janitorial services.
According to DOC spokesperson Susan McNaughton, the prison has two “skilled care units” housing a total of about 100 inmates, many of whom are transferred from other prisons. But not every old or sick inmate makes it to Laurel Highlands, she says.
“Our prisons have infirmaries that provide medical treatment in line with community standards, and those infirmaries are able to care for the prison population’s medical needs regardless of the age of the offender or the type of illness,” McNaughton explained. “We house inmates of all ages throughout our prison system.”
An average of 100 prisoners over the age of 50 die of natural causes every year across Pennsylvania’s prison system. While some states maintain special units for end-of-life care, McNaughton says Pennsylvania doesn’t have a dedicated prison hospice program; instead, she says medical personnel are trained across the system to deal with end-of-life issues, including palliative care for terminally ill patients.
But an ongoing study being conducted by the Penn State School of Nursing found that care behind bars differs in some important ways from similar treatment outside the prison system.
“For example, morphine drips are generally not an option,” said Dr. Susan J Loeb, a registered nurse and associate professor at Penn State who is leading the research, in an article published on the study. “Availability of food items such as puddings, ice creams or other special foods varies between institutions, and reportedly within each prison depending upon who is working at any given time.”
The Penn State team, whose work is funded by a $1.27 million grant from the National Institute of Nursing Research, is working with employees from six Pennsylvania prisons and the DOC in an effort to improve end-of-life care for inmates.
Inmates who are terminally ill and still have time left on their sentences have two choices: die in prison or hope they qualify for Pennsylvania’s recently introduced compassionate release program.
In 2002, the Pennsylvania Senate passed a resolution creating a task force to study the problem of the state’s aging inmate population. It took a year to get off the ground and another two years to complete its work, which culminated in a set of recommendations that included updating the state’s medical release law.
According to Senator Greenleaf, who chaired the panel, the existing law, which dated to 1919, was archaic, and applied only to prisoners who couldn’t be cared for in prison. Greenleaf said there was a general agreement on the panel that if a prisoner is terminally ill and not a risk to society there should be a consideration for early release.
“The average cost of caring for a terminally ill patient can run as high as $100,000 a year, which is the responsibility of the state, but if we release them to a private facility the federal government takes over,” he said. “But this was a public policy decision, so public safety had to take precedent over cost.”
Numerous studies show that older prisoners rarely re-offend once released, particularly those that have been incarcerated for an extended period of time, which most elderly inmates have. Data from the Pennsylvania Parole Board shows that of the 492 prisoners over the age of 50 that were released in 2003, only seven re-offended, a recidivism rate of just 1.4 percent.
In 2008, over the objection of some victim advocates, Gov. Ed Rendell signed a Correction Reform Package, Act 81, which included stringent new guidelines for medical release. Under the program, the corrections officials or the prisoner may petition a temporary suspension of sentence for release to a treatment facility or hospice only if it can be shown that the inmate will receive more appropriate care there, that they pose no threat to the community, and that they are seriously ill and likely to die within a year. If any of those circumstances change, authorities can petition to have the inmate sent back to prison.
McNaughton says approximately six inmates a year are released through the program. Similar programs in other states are notoriously under-utilized, according to prisoner advocates.
Asked if he thought the program he helped champion is working appropriately, Greenleaf said, “We put the mechanisms in place — but I can’t say at this point whether the mechanisms have been adequately utilized.”
There are few things more precious to humans than the air we breathe; unfortunately, not all air is created equally.
If you need proof, take a ride across the Passyunk Avenue Bridge, past the sprawling oil refinery owned by the recently formed Philadelphia Energy Group, and spend a few moments wandering the streets of Schuylkill Southwest – where residents have spent decades dealing with the mysterious odors that periodically emanate from the glowing stacks less than a mile away.
Nearly three quarters of the neighborhood's population is African American – more than half earn less than $25,000 a year – and while their story is not unique, they share something in common with similar populations of Americans scattered across the nation's post-industrial landscape: They are being disproportionately deprived of quality air.
Over the years, research has shown that low-income and minority communities are breathing higher concentrations of dangerous chemicals and particulates than their upper income and white counterparts; and experts say they are paying the price for it, with higher incidences of learning disabilities tied to lead exposure, respiratory ailments such as asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia, and chronic heart disease and cancer.
Statistics show that African Americans are suffering the worst. Blacks are hospitalized for asthma at more than three times the rate of whites. Between 2001 and 2009 asthma rates in Black children increased almost 50 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control, with higher exposure to environmental pollutants listed as one of the causes.
Whether you choose to call it a “disproportionate burden of environmental risks and harms,” as the Environmental Protection Agency did in 2004, or “environmental racism” – the term preferred by community advocates – the problem is real, and it's not getting any better.
A new report from the NAACP shows that despite a federal mandate designed to narrow the gap, poor people and minorities continue to be impacted by coal industry pollution more than any other group. The NAACP ranked 378 coal-fired power plants on the basis of toxic emissions and demographic factors and found that the income level of people living near polluting facilities is more than $3,000 below the national average.
More than two-thirds of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired plant – the distance at which health effects from fallout are most likely to be felt. The dirtier the coal plant, the higher the proportion of minorities living near it. Of the four million people living within three miles of the nation's 75 “failing plants” – which account for the highest levels of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides – 53 percent are minorities, while more than three quarters of the people living near the 12 “worst offending plants” are people of color, the NAACP found.
“Coal pollution is literally killing low-income communities and communities of color,” said NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous. “There is no disputing the urgency of this issue.”
Jacqui Patterson, director of the NAACP Climate Justice Initiative, traveled the country as a co-author of the study and saw firsthand the human impact of these disparities.
“We saw a troubling pattern, and heard story after story of people who had health conditions that presented themselves after moving into areas near these plants, or saw a pattern of more people than the norm having these conditions,” she said, recounting the story of one resident who claimed that half the members of her church were on respirators.
Yet coal is hardly the only culprit. Thanks to its long history as a center of heavy industry, Philadelphia has earned the distinction of being one of America's most polluted metropolitan areas. In its 2012 State of the Air report, the American Lung Association listed Philadelphia tenth on its list of cities with the worst particulate pollution, and just last week Philly was ranked the third dirtiest city in the nation by Forbes – with 18.5 million pounds a year of toxic releases, according to EPA data. The City of Chester – which sits just outside Philadelphia and where three quarters of the population is Black – is home to the largest trash incinerator in the state, and for years has been a focal point of environmental justice activism.
A pattern of discrimination
The NAACP report is just one of a number of studies released over the past decade detailing the disproportionate impact of environmental pollution on communities of color. An Associated Press analysis of data from the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory from 2005 shows African Americans are nearly 80 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is a problem. In 2009, the Ford Foundation sponsored a comprehensive survey of 300 metropolitan areas and determined that Blacks fare worse than any other ethnic group when it comes to exposure to air pollution from a variety of sources.
“If the first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem,” the authors stated, “America must acknowledge that clean and safe air – which would seem to be a birthright of every person – is not currently an equal-opportunity affair.”
The study ranked the Harrisburg metropolitan area fifth in the nation for environmental racism, with minorities suffering more than 32 percent of the impact from industrial pollution despite making up just 13.5 percent of the population. Until it was shut down in 2003, the predominantly minority neighborhood of South Harrisburg was home to the largest dioxin polluting trash incinerator in America. (A plan to rebuild it forced the city into bankruptcy last year).
While both low-income and minority communities suffer disproportionately from environmental pollution, according to Philadelphia-based environmental attorney Mike Ewall – a long-time activist and founder of the Energy Justice Network – race plays a bigger role than class.
“If one were to compare a middle-class community of color to a low-income white community, and look at which community is more likely to have a hazardous waste facility sited there, the middle-class community of color would have a greater chance of being targeted for such a facility,” he said.
Patterson, of the NAACP, says that's because environmental racism is as much a function of political capital, or lack thereof, as it is about income. Black communities have faced a history of political marginalization, making it harder to fight off proposed polluting facilities or close down existing ones, she says. Also, while poor white and Black families might have similar incomes, African Americans tend to have less wealth, which is an important factor when it comes to buying property. Patterson points to a study that found property values average 15 percent lower in areas near a toxic polluting facility.
The federal government has been aware of these discrepancies since the early 1970s, and under President Bill Clinton resolved to do something about them. In an executive order signed in February 1994, Clinton called on the EPA to achieve “environmental justice ... by identifying and addressing...disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations.”
Twice since then, in 2004 and 2006, the EPA's Office of Inspector General has analyzed the agency's progress, and in both cases determined that it had failed to consistently integrate environmental justice into its day-to-day operations or direct regional offices to conduct environment justice reviews. Last year, the nonprofit Center For Public Integrity detailed dozens of open environmental justice cases “languishing” in the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights, some of which are more than a decade old.
Lisa Jackson, the EPA's Administrator, has listed environment justice as one of the agency's top seven priorities and says her goal is to make environmental justice and fairness part of EPA's everyday decision-making. In 2010 the agency launched its EJ2014 initiative, which seeks to create a comprehensive roadmap for protecting and empowering communities over-burdened by pollution.
“EPA has always had a special role with respect to environmental justice, but in this administration, President Obama has really revitalized the larger issue of environmental justice, in which other agencies as well as ours are playing important roles,” she said, in an interview last March published in The Root.
But activists representing the environmental justice movement are dubious of the government's ability to get anything done without legislative changes to the current mandate, which according to its own language “is intended only to improve internal management” and lacks “any right, benefit, or trust responsibility, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law.”
Mike Ewall, director of the Energy Justice Network, says current law “lacks teeth” because it includes “no remedies; there's basically nothing enforceable in it at all.” He insists that any new initiative will require new laws with the power to hold polluters accountable, for instance, by revoking permits.
Meanwhile courts have tied private citizens' hands to deal with the problem through legal channels. Ewall points to a legal precedent set in 2001 that prohibits private lawsuits alleging a violation of Title VI civil rights without proof of intent. “If you can't prove that the disproportionate environmental impact is intentional, you're out of luck,” he said.
According to the EPA's website, while EJ2014 will “implement guidance [for] incorporating environmental justice into the fabric of its rulemaking process,” the program itself is “not a rule or regulation,” but “a strategy to help integrate environmental justice into EPA's day to day activities.” Among the proposed reforms are changes to the permitting process to include more community involvement.
Last week an independent study group from the Council on Foreign Relations issued a report concluding that the state of American education represents a “national security crisis” due to the failure of our public schools to prepare students to be competitive and informed.
“Educational failure puts the United States’ future economic prosperity, global position and physical safety at risk,” the report, from The U.S. Education Reform and National Security Task Force, said, adding that the country “will not be able to keep pace — much less lead — globally unless it moves to fix the problems...”
Among other things, the study found that more than a quarter of students fail to graduate from high school in four years (a number that is closer to 40 percent for African-American and Hispanic students), and less than half of college-bound seniors meet college-ready standards, meaning that more undergraduates need to take remedial courses.
The panel was co-chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Joel Klein, the former Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education — and an early candidate to be President Barack Obama’s Secretary of Education.
“One of the things that I want to underscore is that we do believe that the public education system ... [is] one of our critical democratic institutions,” said Rice. “And yet it is unable now, particularly for kids who don’t have means, to deliver that ticket to a better life.”
It’s certainly not for lack of trying. The U.S. currently shells out more on education than any country besides Switzerland — an average of nearly $150,000 per student over the course of a 13-year school career, or more than double what we spent 40 years ago. And yet we have increasingly little to show for it.
In 2009, the U.S. ranked 17th in reading, 31st in math and 23rd in science, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — bested in all categories by countries like Estonia, Iceland and Slovenia. China ranked first across the board.
For more than a decade the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment has served as the international standard for measuring education success and the benchmark by which the global community gauges student achievement. The rankings are based on tests administered every three years to 15-year-olds that measure reading literacy, mathematics literacy and science literacy, as well as general or cross-curricular competencies such as problem solving. Since its introduction in 2000, the U.S. has never made the top ten.
“One of the most compelling characteristics of the top-performing countries is that they are intensely interested in knowing what the other high-performing countries are doing, and they are always very critical of their own operations and eager to learn from others,” said Marc Tucker, president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy. “But until recently, the U.S. paid little attention to what anyone else was doing.”
By recently, Tucker means two years ago. As in the spring of 2010, when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan caught wind of America’s paltry 2009 PISA rankings and decided it was time to find out what was going on. He asked the OECD to produce a report detailing the strategies employed by the countries and regions with the world’s best performing schools — specifically Germany, Brazil, Singapore, Japan, Finland, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Ontario, Canada.
“That was a signal moment, the first time that a U.S. secretary of education had ever expressed such interest in the strategies employed by other nations to surpass the U.S. on the PISA league tales,” said Tucker.
The findings were published in a December 2010 paper and presented the following May at a symposium in Washington. Last year, Tucker and his colleagues at the NCEE updated the findings to include a series of recommendations for U.S. policy makers and published the results in the book, “Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems.”
The book lays out a handful of practical steps for bringing the U.S. in line with the world’s leading education systems — including placing more control over administering education policy in the hands of the states and distributing money and resources on a proportional basis to those students that need it the most; but most of the solutions are focused on recruiting, educating and retaining great teachers, and giving them the autonomy to learn as they grow and apply what they’ve learned to improve teaching practices.
“The overwhelming sentiment ... is that teachers need to be treated more as professionals and as knowledge workers and less as interchangeable cogs in an educational factory line,” said Duncan in 2010.
Part of that involves paying them more. (The starting salary for a teacher in Pennsylvania, for instance, is around $35,000, on average, which is less than a manager at Taco Bell. Entry-level teachers in high-performance countries, by contrast, earn roughly the same as starting engineers, Tucker says.) But it also means recruiting better ones. According to McKinsey & Company — a global consulting firm — nearly half of America’s kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers come from the bottom one-third of their college classes. In high-poverty areas like Philadelphia, just 14 percent come from the top of their classes. Finland, meanwhile, requires all of its teachers to have master’s degrees, and accepts just 10 percent of college graduates into its teacher training program. In all high-performing countries, acceptance criteria to teaching colleges is stringent, and only the best and brightest make it through.
“The countries that succeed in the world are recruiting their teachers from the top 10, 15, 25 percent of college graduates. For a long time America hasn’t done that,” said Klein. “We need to upgrade our teachers, support our teachers, provide constant learning and training for them.”
Critics often lay blame for poorly performing teachers on powerful unions and the contracts they negotiate that provide for easy tenure and make it hard to get rid of bad performers. But Tucker says while contract terms do need to be relaxed, the notion that increasing the number of high-quality professionals depends on having efficient mechanisms for getting rid of the bad ones is backwards logic.
“If you look at the medical profession for example, the procedures that we have for getting rid of lousy doctors are no more effective than we have for getting rid of lousy teachers, in fact they are probably worse,” he said.
The difference in those professions, Tucker says, is that quality control goes on in the front, not at the back of the process.
“So, it’s much harder to get into those professions, the standards are much higher. I think we have this accountability issue backwards.”
By observing practices in high-performing countries it’s also clear that we’re relying too much on standardized tests to gauge both the achievement levels of student and the quality of the teachers educating them. In most other countries, high-quality, comprehensive tests that gauge not only math, reading and science, but also problem solving and critical thinking, are administered sparingly throughout a student’s career — typically at the end of elementary school and once or twice in high school.
Meanwhile, America’s schools continue to grapple with the fallout from President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, and more recently President Obama’s Race to the Top program — both of which, critics say, put undue emphasis on standardized testing to set goals and measure performance.
Earlier this month it was revealed that 56 Philadelphia schools, including three charter schools, are under investigation for teacher-assisted cheating on proficiency tests — a clear indication that something has gone horribly awry with the way we measure success.
Tucker lays the blame squarely on standardized testing, noting that the U.S. is the only industrialized nation that places such an emphasis on repeated, multiple-choice, computer-scored tests of mathematics and language.
“When you hear people from other countries talking about what they want for their kids, they rarely talk about performance in the basic skills. They assume that their kids can read well, write well and compute adequately,” he said. “So what they talk about is their capacity to be creative, their capacity to demonstrate innovative behavior, to think out of the box; we are putting the emphasis on the acquisition of basic skills to the detriment of the skills that they think are essential to the survival of their culture and economy, and I think they’re right.”
What's more valuable to the U.S. economy: a Twinkie or an Apple? It depends on who you ask. Ask a nutritionist and you're likely to hear how the 37 highly processed ingredients that make up a Twinkie's 150 empty calories have absolutely no value at all, and are more likely to be a drain on the economy in the form of higher health care costs due to diet-related problems like obesity and diabetes. By contrast, a nutritionist would probably say an apple, with its abundance of fiber and Vitamin C is a pretty good source of healthy energy for the average working man or woman, and therefore contributes to national productivity.
But ask a congressman, and — if he puts his mouth where taxpayers' money is — you'll get a different story altogether. That's because as far as the U.S. government is concerned, the main ingredients in a Twinkie are worth quite a bit more than the lowly apple. How much more? According to a new report from PennPIRG, the differences are staggering.
Between 1995 and 2011, the report found, a total of $277 billion in taxpayer dollars were funneled to the agricultural sector in the form of federal subsidies, 75 percent of which went to support a handful of crops — namely corn, soybeans and wheat. Only 1 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. actually makes it to the consumer while still on the cob. The remainder is shipped overseas, turned into fuel and animal feed, or processed into profitable food additives like high-fructose corn syrup or corn starch, which eventually find their way into products like soda and Twinkies. The majority of soybeans are turned into oil, primarily the partially hydrogenated kind, which is found in a variety of processed foods and has been shown to cause high cholesterol, heart disease and obesity.
According to PennPIRG, four common junk food additives — corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, corn starch and soy oils — benefited from $18.2 billion in federal largesse over the past 15 years, while a paltry $637 million went to support the production and distribution of apples.
Thanks in large part to an increasing abundance of cheap, high-calorie foods, more Americans are obese today than at any time in our country’s history. And healthy food advocates point a big fat finger at government agricultural policy — specifically subsidies to “Big Ag” — as one of the main culprits. Between 1985 and 2000, the real price of soft drinks — which are made almost entirely of high-fructose corn syrup — declined by 23 percent thanks to subsidies for the corn industry, while the cost of healthy fruits and vegetables increased by nearly 40 percent, according to the journalist Michael Pollan, who writes on food policy.
“At a time when childhood obesity rates are skyrocketing, it’s absurd that we’re spending billions of taxpayer dollars to make the problem worse,” said Laura Etherton, a health care policy analyst for U.S. PIRG, PennPIRG's national umbrella, which launched a broad-based campaign this summer to draw attention to the issue in the hopes of influencing policy.
In a matter of weeks Congress will face the deadline for considering the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012, also known as the “farm bill” – a whopping $500 billion piece of legislation that funds everything from food stamps to school lunches. It also happens to be the conduit for billions of dollars in agricultural subsidies. The bill passed the Senate at the end of July, and House lawmakers have until September 30 to enact the legislation or seek an extension. While the current version of the bill cuts subsidies and land conservation spending by $2 billion a year and eliminates direct payments to farmers whether they plant crops or not, it leaves in billions of dollars of lopsided support for agribusiness.
According to an analysis by the group Civil Eats, the 2012 farm bill “leaves untouched a bloated $9-billion-a-year crop insurance program that pays about 60 percent of farmers’ crop insurance premiums, no matter how large the farm, and sends billions to crop insurance companies and their agents. Most of the benefits of these proposed programs would flow to the ‘big five’ commodity crops (corn, soy, cotton, rice, and wheat.)”
Prior to the 1930s, American farmers received few if any financial incentives from the government; but the passage of the Agricultural Adjustment Act during the New Deal inaugurated a new era of farm subsidies that continues to this day. Things changed radically during the Cold War, when pressure to undercut Soviet influence overseas prompted the government to enact policies to greatly increase grain production. Since then, the subsidies have gotten bigger and the effects on the nation's waistline more profound. The average American eats 25 percent more calories today than in 1970, mostly in the form of added fats, sugars and grains, according to a tally by Civil Eats.
PennPIRG is hoping its campaign will compel lawmakers to address the disparities in the bill.
“Our strategy is to make sure there is an amendment dealing specifically with these subsidies and to find some champions who will draft an amendment so there can be an up or down vote on these subsidies,” said Angela Lee, a policy associate at PennPIRG.
That may be an uphill battle in a presidential election year, but Lee says several lawmakers are already on board — including Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., who introduced amendments to curb subsidies to big agriculture in 2001 and 2007, and penned a letter this year to colleagues seeking support for subsidy reform.
“These are huge taxpayer subsidies, most of the time going to big agribusiness, and it’s not helping our family farmers,” Kind told Wisconsin's La Crosse Tribune in January. “We’ve got to stop this nonsense in light of the huge budget deficits we’re facing.”
Lee calls farm subsidies “the perfect bipartisan issue.” Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan supports cutting farm subsidies, as does President Obama.
“What we have been telling people is America is facing a huge deficit problem and meanwhile childhood obesity rates are skyrocketing while billions in taxpayer dollars are subsidizing junk food ingredients,” Lee said. “That seems like a pretty logical issue to get behind.”
The massive agricultural lobby is doing everything in its power to keep the money flowing. Lee says that in 2008, the last time a farm bill was considered, “Big Ag” spent $200 million in campaign contributions, lobbying and television advertising to keep subsidies in place. Food and Water Watch ranked that version of the bill the most heavily lobbied piece of legislation of the past decade, exceeding even the Affordable Care Act.
“We can't ignore the fact that these big agricultural companies like Cargill and Monsanto have pumped millions into lobbying,” said Lee. “So we do have quite an opposition, but we have gotten strong public support across the country. That's why we do have a fighting chance this year.”
Last Wednesday — the day before New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a controversial ban on the retail sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces in the Big Apple — a coalition of community activists, health care policy advocates and concerned citizens participated in a national conference call sponsored by the group Local to Global Advocates for Justice to discuss the nutrition crisis that continues to plague communities of color.
The call — which attracted participants from cities stretching from Oakland, Calif., to Washington D.C. — offered a platform for representatives of the so-called Food Sovereignty Movement to share stories and brainstorm new strategies for retaking control of the dietary choices in their communities.
Jackie Byers — director of the Oakland-based Black Organizing Project — hosted the call. Byers — who has worked for more than 16 years advocating for a variety of social justice issues and was formerly the associate director of the Center for Third World Organizing — says it’s time for people of color to assert their moral authority over the corporations that are destroying their communities by flooding them with foods that are high in fat, high in sugar and lacking nutritional value.
“Across the country our children, Black children, are under a profound nutritional deficit,” she said. “The food system that’s feeding them, that’s feeding us, is not a wholesome, vibrant, healthy food system that promotes our health and well being; it’s promoting caloric overload, it’s promoting not only obesity, but chronic conditions that are reducing our quality of life and our longevity.”
Since the term was first coined in the 1990s — originally to address the struggles faced by peasant farmers in the developing world — Food Sovereignty has grown to encompass a whole range of strategies for promoting agriculture and nutritional health in low-income, and in the U.S., predominantly African-American communities. The movement represents a unified grassroots response to America’s unprecedented obesity epidemic, which leads to hundreds of thousands of life-threatening diagnoses each year, and recently overtook smoking as the nation’s leading preventable cause of death.
More Americans are obese today than at any time in our country’s history; and no population has been hit harder than African Americans. Black Americans are now 1.4 times more likely than whites to be obese. According to the U.S. Office of Minority Health, a whopping four out of five African-American women are obese or overweight, and while Black men fare slightly better, they still outrank all other ethnic groups in rates of obesity.
It should come as no surprise, then, that weight-related diseases are plaguing Black communities at alarming rates. According to the Centers for Disease Control, compared to non-Hispanic white adults, the risk of diagnosed diabetes is 77 percent higher among non-Hispanic Blacks, and African Americans are more than two times as likely as non-Hispanic whites to die from the disease. African Americans also suffer from a higher incidence of certain diet-related cancers and hypertension than whites, and are less likely to have their high blood pressure under control.
In an effort to address the crisis, in February 2010, Michelle Obama — who has made obesity a cornerstone of her tenure as first lady — joined Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in Philadelphia to introduce the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a $400 million commitment to provide dietary support to Americans living in so-called “food deserts” where access to healthy and affordable food is severely lacking.
The initiative provides support for a range of programs by offering technical assistance to community development organizations; federal tax credits to groups that promote healthy eating; and loans, loan guarantees and grants to spark investments in affected communities.
A month after the first lady’s visit, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health launched “Get Healthy Philly” with help from the CDC and a variety of nonprofit organizations and private institutions, including The Food Trust, a local whole foods advocacy group. The federally funded program is a multi-pronged effort to decrease smoking rates in the city and promote healthy lifestyle choices, including good eating habits.
According to Dr. Giridhar Mallya — the director of policy and planning for the Department of Public Health — a large part of the program involves broadening access to wholesome foods.
“I think oftentimes we think about people’s nutritional habits and whether they are active as individual decisions, but people’s decisions are really influenced in pretty significant ways by the environments in which they live,” said Dr. Mallya. “So right now many Philadelphians, particularly low-income Philadelphians and racial minorities, live in environments that make unhealthy food choices very easy; they’re cheap and they are heavily marketed, while healthy foods are either difficult to find or not affordable for folks with limited income.”
Brian Lang, the director of The Food Trust’s Supermarket Campaign says food scarcity has gotten worse for low-income consumers over the past three decades as grocery stores have become more scarce.
“Starting about 20 or 30 years ago supermarkets began following their customers out of the cities and into the suburbs,” he said. “Meanwhile the average grocery store has gotten a lot larger and as a result they have gotten a lot more expensive to build and fewer and farther between. That makes it a challenge to get to a store if you’re somebody that has transportation problems or that doesn’t own a car.”
“Some supermarket owners have commented that in inner city locations they are just not making quite as much money as they would in more affluent suburban areas where land is easier to come by and people have more disposable income,” he added.
The fallout has been dramatic. A 2009 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that 23.5 million, mostly low-income Americans have no supermarket or large grocery store within a mile of their homes, forcing them to rely disproportionately on convenience stores and fast food restaurants to meet much of their dietary needs. Meanwhile, research has shown that people who lack access to supermarkets are 46 percent more likely to eat unhealthy diets.
The Food Trust has long been at the forefront of tackling the problem. In 2004 — with the support of Rep. Dwight Evans and help from The Reinvestment Fund and the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition — the group launched the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, an $85 million statewide public-private partnership that has become a model for communities nationwide committed to combating obesity and improving food access. According to the group, the program has helped sponsor 88 fresh-food retail projects in 34 Pennsylvania counties.
Mallya calls ensuring access to healthy foods “a big part of the puzzle” when it comes to reversing the downward spiral of nutritional access in cities like Philadelphia. Over the last two years the city has recruited more than 630 corner stores into its “Healthy Bodegas” program, which seeks to replace standard corner store fare with more produce and fresh foods.
According to Mallya, under the program the city offers a small financial incentive to owners who agree to add at least four new healthy products to their inventory, use marketing materials to direct consumers to healthy alternatives and undergo training to learn how to price and sell wholesome foods. Since 2010 the city has also helped launch ten new farmers markets in low-income communities including Norris Square in North Philadelphia and Point Breeze in South Philly. To provide a financial incentive to ensure people patronize them, the city is jointly sponsoring a program with The Food Trust called “Philly Food Bucks,” which offers consumers $2.00 in coupons for every $5.00 they spend using their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)/food stamp benefits at participating farmers markets.
“That program alone has helped increase SNAP redemptions at farmers markets around the city by 400 percent,” said Mallya. “I think it’s a great example that people will healthy food if you make it available and affordability. You just have to make sure people are equipped to do it.”
The city has set a five-year goal of ensuring that at least 25 percent of Philadelphians live within a half-mile of a supermarket, farmers market or healthy corner store and hopes to reduce by 10 percent children’s consumption of junk foods from corner bodegas.
Even with healthy access, however, eating right ultimately comes down to choice. And experts agree that’s a bit tougher to influence. Food choices are often as much a product of culture as they are a source of nourishment. In her 2004 study: “Factors influencing food choices, dietary intake, and nutrition related attitudes among African Americans,” Delores James — a professor of behavioral health at the University of Florida — noted that among some Black populations, where high salt, high fat foods are a cultural norm, there remains a “general perception that ‘eating healthfully’ [means] giving up part of their cultural heritage and trying to conform to the dominant culture.”
To break the cycle of bad eating the city has been partnering with schools and community centers to remove unhealthy options from school cafeterias educate children on proper nutrition with the hope they will bring those lessons back to their parents.
The good news is these efforts appear to be paying off. Last August The New York Times published a piece by food writer Mark Bittman that called Philadelphia “among the most progressive cities in the country” for promoting healthy food choices and a model for other cities to follow. It might be too soon to see the impact on the bodies of our citizens, but if these efforts keep up, the City of Brotherly Love is likely to shed a few pounds in the coming years.
For more information on the Department of Public Health’s efforts to reduce obesity in Philadelphia, visit: www.foodfitphilly.org.
To find a farmers market in your neighborhood, visit: www.thefoodtrust.org/php/programs/phillyfoodbucks.php.
Progressives gathering in D.C. to redirect focus from extremist rhetoric
Exactly one year ago, ABC News and Yahoo! News conducted a joint survey that revealed some depressing news. Across America, people from all walks of life were reporting that the torch that lit the way for generations of Americans as they staked their claim to the bounty of our nation was, for all intents and purposes, a thing of the past.
Asked if the singularly American ideal that success is all but guaranteed through hard work and perseverance was consistent with their experience, more than half of those surveyed said it was not. The American Dream, most agreed, is a relic from another time.
It’s easy to understand the respondents’ discouragement. A year ago the economy was on life support; and things are even worse today. At last count 14 million Americans are officially out of work (real joblessness is worse because that number doesn’t include large segments of the population who have given up looking for jobs, or people who are working part time because they can’t get a full-time job.)
“We’ve just sat here and watched Obama get beaten to a pulp and where have been our rallies, where are our protests, where are our marches for jobs,” said longtime civil rights activist and community organizer Van Jones.
On Sunday, a coalition of progressive groups led by Jones is gathering in Washington in an effort to raise their collective voice and take control of the nation’s political discourse back from what they say is a small but vocal minority of right-wing reactionaries, the tea party, who are out of touch with the values of most Americans. Jones’ mission is to join progressive groups under “a common banner” and to create what The Nation magazine editor Katrina vanden Heuvel called an “independent people’s movement willing to challenge the grip of private interests on the public good.”
Jones formally inaugurated his “Rebuild the American Dream” movement over the summer, but this will be the group’s first national conference. It’s being organized in conjunction with the Campaign for America’s Future and will run through Tuesday in Washington, D.C. The organization is now called simply the “American Dream Movement.”
Meanwhile, American industry is a pale reflection of what it was 30 years ago, so there are fewer opportunities for all those jobless workers to find gainful, secure employment. Even new college graduates are facing limited choices, and many will wind competing for the same minimum wage restaurants and retail gigs as the newly unemployed.
By all accounts, things aren’t going to get better any time soon. In August the International Monetary Fund slashed its Gross Domestic Product forecast for the U.S. to 1.6 percent from the 2.5 percent estimate it made just two months earlier. Against this backdrop the nation’s leaders are engaged in a seemingly endless tit-for-tat that ensures more time will be spent on partisan rhetoric and name calling than on fixing the country.
Our collective hardships, and the inability of government to solve them, have generated widespread disillusionment and anger among a populace with a lot of extra time on its hands. Nearly two years ago, a small group of Republican activists funded by a handful of conservative nonprofit groups was able to exploit that discontent and forge it into the national movement we know as the tea party. Meanwhile, the grassroots Left that helped Obama get elected in the first place has been relegated to sideline seating, partly as a result of being drowned out by their conservative rivals — but more accurately, progressive organizers say — because they haven't been shouting loud enough.
The target group for the “American Dream Movement” message — like that of the tea party — is the population of working-and-middle-class Americans who have little or no history of political activism but are struggling to make ends meet.
In an interview last week with the Tribune, Jones — who was forced out of a position as President Obama’s green jobs advisor in 2009 over a controversy involving statements he made as a young activist — says he is seeking to create a positive counterbalance to the tea party that involves hundreds or thousands of local groups operating under the American Dream umbrella. He says to date roughly 70 organizations have signed up and local groups have been hosting “house parties” where strategy is discussed at a grassroots level.
“Nothing like this has existed for people who are progressive or even moderate,” he said. “We have a lot of groups but most of our groups have a lot of issues that we’re working on or are limited to one single issue, or a single identity group; but whose job is it make good economic policy to save the middle class or anybody that wants to get in the middle class? Labor unions maybe did that 50 years ago, and the Democratic Party is supposed to do that on paper, but I don’t think there is anybody who’s manning that watchtower anymore. And so that’s what we want to fill in.”
Like the tea party, the American Dream Movement is promoting its own ten-point “Contract for the American Dream” that includes pledges relating to taxes, the environment, healthcare and education. To generate the contract, Jones put out a public call for solutions via the Internet and says he received input from more than 130,000 people.
He says the organization will soon invite candidates for office to sign on to the pact and gain the widespread support of the movement.
“Right now we are just getting started but eventually we imagine there will be — just like you have tea party Republicans, maybe someday you'll have American Dream Democrats and even American Dream Republicans,” he explained.
Yet a large part of the tea tarty’s success can be attributed to a media frenzy — led by Fox News — that was, by all accounts, out of proportion to the actual size and breadth of the movement. To mimic that force will require generating the same if not more interest from the press, a task that has not always been easy for the Left.
A rally in New York on June 23, introducing the American Dream Movement that featured performances by The Roots and artist Shepard Fairey, got little media attention beyond the alternative press; on the same day, dozens of stories appeared mentioning the tea party.
Timothy Brown, MoveOn’s Regional Organizer for Southeastern PA, attended the rally and takes issue with the lack of media coverage of progressive events.
“I think that what we are doing is, in fact, too controversial — we are challenging the power structure in this country; the very same power structure that owns 80 percent of the media in America,” he said. “They don’t want our movement covered because it might give the rest of America the wrong idea — namely, that you can stand up to power. So, as Gil Scott-Heron famously said, ‘The revolution will not be televised.’”
Brown says the key to success will come from communicating directly to the American people in terms they can relate to.
“These folks don’t have anything left at the end of the day to delve into complicated issues,” he said. “They want simple answers that they can quickly absorb and say, ‘Yeah, that's what I believe!’ And the professional propagandists on the right — the public relations and political professionals that are hired by the Koch brothers and their ilk — know this and pander to that need for simplicity, truth be damned. So, our job is to take a page from the right and combat these lies — not with some thirty-point analysis, but with some simple truths of our own.”
Asked about his time in the administration and if he thinks the president has lost his way, Jones said: “I think the whole country has lost its way. From the White House all the way down. I think that the grassroots movements that got together to elect Obama, we lost our way first in that we did not find a way to keep our movement going.
“[But] the most important thing that I can communicate is that if you are tired of talking about how the tea party is crazy and Obama has let you down and want to talk about what you can do and what we can do together then this is your movement.”