The Sesame Street special on hunger in America, “Growing Hope Against Hunger,” which started running on PBS last night, represents the best and worst of America’s response to hunger.
On the plus side, the show demonstrates the heartwarming American tradition of neighbors feeling troubled by other neighbors in need and wanting to take positive action to do something about it. Plus, any time that a high-prestige cultural fixture, like Sesame Street, highlights the issue of domestic hunger – which is all-too-often ignored by the mainstream media – it can be helpful to the anti-hunger cause. Bravo to Sesame Street for even tackling this tough issue.
Unfortunately, despite its obvious good intentions, the show encapsulates everything wrong about our culture’s current response to domestic hunger. It’s shallow, self-aggrandizing to food donors and volunteers, patronizing to victims, and unwittingly, promotes a right-wing political agenda that gives the false impression that charity, not government, must take the lead in solving a major social problem that impacts nearly 49 million Americans. Granted, this is a show aimed at young children, so I don’t expect it to be the PBS NewsHour, but I still think it does a disservice to even its younger viewers, who are often more aware of the harsh realities around them than we suppose.
Ironically, prior to its airing, the show was attacked on the conservative blog National Review Online by an author who hadn’t even seen the show. The program’s so-called offense was simply indicating that hunger was even a problem in the United States, an obvious reality which the Right still hyperventilates to deny: National Review Online
Federal nutrition safety net programs (such as SNAP/food stamps, WIC, and school meals) provide more than 15 times the food of every food pantry and food bank in America combined – and even much of the food distributed by nonprofit pantries and food banks is purchased by the government. Yet the hour-long program includes extraordinarily brief references to government safety net programs, and doesn’t actually use the word “government” so much as once, potentially leaving some viewers with the false impression that SNAP and WIC are private programs. (Someone once argued with me that, rather than have government fight hunger, we should do more to support programs like Meals on Wheels; he was unaware that Meals on Wheels receives much of its funding from government.)
The vast majority of the Sesame Street show is devoted to extolling the virtues of private food drives, food pantries, food banks, and community gardens, strongly implying that they alone are solving the problem. Such efforts are wonderful and should be supported, but the show gave the false impression they, alone, can end hunger. One small child in the show, running a food drive, said, “If everyone did this, there would be no more hunger.” I don’t blame her for saying it. She is indeed a true hero.
But I do blame the show’s producers for including this line in the program as if it’s true. Giving the impression that we can end hunger with food drives is like giving the impression we can fill the Grand Canyon with a teaspoon. Even if we had endless time to fill the Canyon, it would erode faster than we could fill it. And that’s exactly what’s happening with hunger – every year more people donate more food through more food drives but hunger continues to soar upwards because of the economy’s and the country’s slashing of the federal anti-poverty safety net.
In fact, the show is so fixated by the marvels of food drives that it shows children who are so hungry that their families obtain food from food pantries actually donating to food drives. Given that there are usually significant costs for non-profit groups to transport even donated food, if the low-income recipients actually re-donate the same food, the extraordinarily warm-hearted act of re-gifting can actually, in effect, take food away from others by reducing the amount of resources needed to help others.
The show reinforces the message, over and over again, that “everyone can help.” I agree that it is important to teach young people that everyone can and should try to “make a difference,” but giving them the incorrect impression that fitful bouts of limited charity can solve major societal issues actually teaches them a untrue lesson that solving major problems is quick and easy, a belief that can hamper them later as they face the true challenges of adulthood.
The show also reinforces the feeling – so prevalent in today’s narcissistic society – that those who volunteer a few hours and donate a few leftover cans become “good people” by doing so. Our society never questions whether the adult donors are automatically virtuous, even though they may also vote for politicians that cut budgets for anti-hunger programs in order to lower their own taxes.
Even worse, the show seems to blame hungry people for their own hunger. It features a woman who tells a counselor she is hungry because she dropped out of school. The counselor never says, “No, it’s not your fault.” Nor does the show point out that, as recently as the 1970’s, high school drop-outs in America were unlikely to face hunger because they were more likely to have a living-wage job and a robust social safety net to fall back on in times of trouble.
The show repeatedly claims that the financial downturn forced families to shop for healthier foods, as if they were shopping stupidly or irresponsibly before, While the show does, helpfully, highlight food deserts in which healthier food is either non-existent or too expensive, it then makes the assumption that families can somehow magically avoid food deserts since a helpful charity, right there in their neighborhood, will always have as much fresh produce for them as they need. (A glaring omission in the show is how frequently charities run out of food or close, unlike government entitlement programs, which, at least for now, never do.)
At the end of the show, viewers are directed to a web site: www.pbs.org/parent. If you spend enough time searching the site, you can find some limited information on the SNAP and WIC programs. That’s great. But the main landing page where you are sent gives the following as a “Tip for Parents:”
"* Make a shopping list. Sticking to your grocery list when shopping will save time and money.
* Buy fruits and vegetables that are in season. They’ll usually cost less.
*Praise kids for trying a new food. Even if they don’t like it, they’ll be more open to trying something new in the future.
*Refrigerate or freeze leftovers quickly. When freezing leftovers, use reusable containers.
*Listen to your child’s concerns. If your child has questions about having enough to eat, tell her you’re doing everything you can to take care of her. Share information with her in an age-appropriate manner."
That's the advice they give. In other words, to avoid the problems of child hunger, simply parent better. How patronizing.
Perhaps most appallingly, the program repeatedly states that going hungry turned out to be a good thing for families because it “brought them closer together.”
I’m all for looking on “the bright side of life” and offering realistic hopes. But false hope is worse than no hope.
Given that Sesame Street strives so diligently to be sensitively multicultural and highlight difficult social problems (including hunger), I think it is highly unlikely that any of this program’s producers or writers thought they were in any way advancing a right-wing agenda. In fact, I think they’d be appalled to even consider the notion.
But, nevertheless, the show propagates the false but common American belief that private, voluntary charity is adequately solving major problems, and that government has very little role to play. Moreover, this program is the latest demonstration of how well-meaning liberal elites tend to agree with conservatives when it comes to blaming poverty on poor people. Throughout American history, educated people with money, no matter their ideology, have often agreed that, if only the lower classes acted more virtuously, they wouldn’t be poor or hungry.
I am not suggesting that show aimed at children should be somehow morphed into a Bill Moyers policy special about inequality of wealth or cut-backs in the social safety net. Surely there is a middle ground. We can have a program which educates both children and adults about hunger, without giving the false impression that this or any other major national problem can be solved in a facile manner simply by neighbors pitching in more to help neighbors. Most children who actually live in low-income neighborhoods already know that’s not the case.
Children deserve hope. But they also deserve the truth. Sometimes problems, and their solutions, are complicated. The sooner children learn this in our troubled economy, the better they will grow to become adults truly equipped to solve big problems.
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