Urban Hunger Like The Bite Of Crabs

I can think of no configuration of socionatural relations more debilitating to human potential than the one that produces hunger. Without food, human bodies simply cannot exist. Human bodies that do not consume a sufficient quantity of food, or food that does not contain sufficient nutritional quality simply cannot function. Without enough food, the everyday processes necessary for social production and reproduction become daunting and/or impossible. Human bodies are produced through socio-metabolic processes that link their existence to external processes that produce food. The same socio-metabolic processes necessitate that human bodies produce different types of nature as the result of socio-physical processes that are themselves constituted through relations of social and political power and through a wide assortment of cultural meanings (see Haraway 1991; 1997; Chapter 1 of this book).

While in no way attempting to diminish the importance of other spatial configurations of hunger (i.e. rural hunger), urban hunger has received little attention for too long and requires more substantial theoretical investigation and political action. By articulating the connections, interrelations, and interdependences between the metabolism of food through the human body and the metabolism of cities, this chapter will discuss the socionatural production of urban hunger. I will draw specifically on the history of political struggles around childhood hunger in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and more particularly a recent campaign to have the Milwaukee public school system ratify a universal free breakfast programme that would significantly reduce childhood hunger in the city. I intend to use my own engagement in activist-scholarship, or action-research (see Greenwood and Levin 1998), as a member of a group called Voices Against Hunger to show the link between urban political ecology and radical geographic praxis within the context of Swyngedouw's suggestion (see Chapter 2) that: "What differentiates human actants from others is their organic capacity to imagine different possible futures, to act differentially in ways driven and shaped by human drives, desires, and imaginations."

Within this chapter, I suggest that urban hunger is both a natural condition created through complex biochemical processes, as well as a social process produced through power relations dictating who eats what and how much, and who goes hungry. The urban political ecology of hunger, like all other socionatural processes, is produced through an amalgamation of biochemical processes, material and cultural practices, social relations, language, discursive constructions and ideological practices (see Swyngedouw 1999; 2004). These processes are developed and co-evolve somewhere within the tension between consumption based on physiological requirements and consumption based on cultural conditions; between need and desire.

Lefebvre (2002:7-8) discusses the relations inherent to the tension between need and desire connected to eating/hunger [and sex] by suggesting, "it is not only the drama of the relations between one individual and another (or the other) individual which is sketched out and foreshadowed through this need, it is not only the drama of the link between individual and species, it is the universality which is being offered or withdrawn." This universality will be the anchor for my theorization of the processes that produce urban hunger, as these are the fundamental material processes that connect humans to nature, or nature to itself (as Marx would put it).

In 2003, 11.2 percent of all US households were "food insecure" because of lack of economic resources. Since 1999, food insecurity has increased by 2.1 million households nationally, including 1.1 million households with children. Furthermore, the number of families with children requesting emergency food assistance increased by 88 percent (USCM 2003). While it is difficult to determine what percentage of these men, women and children live within US cities, a survey released by the US Conference of Mayors (USCM) in 2003 provides chilling information about the proliferation of urban hunger within US urban areas. The USCM suggest that requests for emergency food assistance increased by 88 percent within the twenty-five cities surveyed between 1997 and 2002. Their report suggests that in 2003 alone, requests increased by an average of 17 percent. So while not having an absolute sense of the severity of urban hunger, the relational proliferation within the US is ominous. Given the relational hierarchy between bodily metabolization and more wide ranging urban metabolization across space, but also between/within generations, the blatant inequality associated with urban hunger, especially as it most negatively impacts children, presents substantial impediments to the production of healthy and just US urban spaces and environments.

In his poem, "The great tablecloth", Pablo Neruda (1958) helps us to empathize with the ineffable socionatural contradictions inherent in hunger. He suggests, hunger "Is hollow and green, has thorns like a chain of fish hooks" and "feels like pincers, like the bite of crabs; it burns, burns, and has no fur". Neruda produces an explicit imaginary of razor-sharp metal piercing supple intestinal lining. However, Neruda also leaves us with a hopeful message, reminding us that there is nothing inevitable about the tearstained sheets that shroud hunger, just as there is nothing inevitable about the capitalist system that produces it. Neruda's Utopian call, "Let us sit down soon to eat, with all those who haven't eaten", is not just the stuff of poetry or religion, it is also a concern voiced within radical geography. As Harvey suggests (1973:313-314):

Many hopeful and Utopian things have been written about the city throughout history. We now have the opportunity to live many of these things provided we can seize upon the present possibilities. We have the opportunity to create space, to harness creatively the forces making for urban differentiation. But in order to seize these opportunities we have to confront the forces that create cities as alien environments, that push urbanization in directions alien to our individual or collective purpose. To confront these forces we have first to understand them.

This opportunity still exists thirty-three years after the publication of Social Justice and the City. Within the last three decades, we urban geographers have sharpened our theoretical tools and broadened our understanding about the dialectical processes that produce socionatural inequality and spatial forms within the city. As such, the goals of urban political ecology, especially Marxist urban political ecology, should first be to understand the socionatural contradictions that produce urban hunger, and then to act to end these contradictions.

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