Fasting against Hunger

Mark Bittman, who wrote the Minimalist food column at the New York Times for more than a decade, announced last week that he was taking minimalism a step further, by not eating altogether.  Most of Bittman’s writing is about how to make meals quickly with limited ingredients.  In the last few years, however, he began to write occasionally about the politics of food, urging his readers to think about eating less food and less meat to improve their health and protect the environment.

But this is a new wrinkle in Bittman’s politics: he’s fasting to protest cuts in the federal budget that affect poor people.  He writes:

I stopped eating on Monday and joined around 4,000 other people in a fast to call attention to Congressional budget proposals that would make huge cuts in programs for the poor and hungry.

By doing so, I surprised myself; after all, I eat for a living. But the decision was easy after I spoke last week with David Beckmann, a reverend who is this year’s World Food Prize laureate. Our conversation turned, as so many about food do these days, to the poor.

Who are — once again — under attack, this time in the House budget bill, H.R. 1. The budget proposes cuts in the WIC program (which supports women, infants and children), in international food and health aid (18 million people would be immediately cut off from a much-needed food stream, and 4 million would lose access to malaria medicine) and in programs that aid farmers in underdeveloped countries. Food stamps are also being attacked, in the twisted “Welfare Reform 2011” bill. (There are other egregious maneuvers in H.R. 1, but I’m sticking to those related to food.)

David Beckmann, Bread for the World

Bittman is a writer and a cook, but not an organizer.  The fast that started last Monday was organized by David Beckmann (left), president of Bread for the World, Jim Wallis, of Sojourners, a progressive Christian group, and former Democratic Congressman, Tony Hall.  (Hall had conducted a fast for the same reasons in 1993 that stretched for 22 days.)  The organizers framed their fast in explicitly religious terms, offering a Gospel of social justice.  Beckmann explains:

I’m a Lutheran pastor, and I have not come across any biblical injunction against taxing the wealthy. Yet the Bible constantly reminds us to take care of the least of our brethren. If our representatives and senators are unwilling to listen to the needs of hungry and poor people, maybe they will listen to God.

Our prayer is simple: We invite God to reshape our personal priorities and the priorities of our nation, and we call on God to help us form a circle of protection around programs that are needed by the most vulnerable among us. Amen.

Fasting is a ritual of purification in many religions, but when the faithful make their actions public, and target policy demands as well as enlightenment, it becomes political.

Once the action started, others joined in, including Bittman.  Other religious groups joined, as did political groups.  By mid-week, Moveon.org, the Service Employees International Union, the Center for Community Change, ColorOfChange, Courage Campaign, Presente.org and CREDO. The fast became a vehicle for all sorts of people, with a variety of gripes with the proposed budget, to take action and try to push back against the efforts of Tea Party groups on the right.  Advocates for immigrants’ rights, gay and lesbian rights, and labor have used the campaign on behalf of poor people to link their own claims to a larger fight.

While the initiators staged full-on fasts, this is a difficult–and dangerous–commitment for most people to take on.  Supporting groups have urged their audiences to take more modest actions, like skipping a meal.  The more important thing, they argue, is to draw attention to the magnitude of the federal cuts.

The fast is an effort to change the focus of discussion from the federal deficit to the things that federal spending does–at least some of the things.

This isn’t so obvious or so easy.  At least some [e.g.] conservative pundits have ridiculed the fasters for protesting against modest cuts in total government spending, explicitly ignoring the specific programs the protesters want to save.

Next post is about fasting as a political strategy.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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2 Responses to Fasting against Hunger

  1. Deana Rohlinger says:

    I will be interested in your thoughts, but it strikes me that fasting is unlikely to be a successful strategy. It lacks visibility. It doesn’t matter if 20,000 agree to fast (or skip a meal) if there are not doing so with witnesses and the glaring media spotlight. To be sure, fasting requires physical and mental discipline. But, it is difficult to envision meaningful change resulting from such individualized action in the contemporary political world. Of course, perhaps it might work if those fasting coordinate and leverage the power of the Internet (blog, e-mail, youtube…) to make their pains heard…….

  2. Pingback: Fast Politics | Politics Outdoors

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