Utopian Political Ecology And Urban Hunger In Milwaukee

Utopian moments within recent urban history can shine as a beacons of hope and serve as roadmaps to help us mobilize politics more capable, and willing, to eradicate urban hunger (and for that matter all hunger). One such Utopian moment is the little-known political struggles around childhood hunger in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the Milwaukeeans' imaginative history for carving out spaces for emancipatory socionatural change. Although so fundamental an issue, childhood hunger in Milwaukee has historically been addressed by those individuals and groups in society that are considered to be the most radical. This relational contradiction was best articulated by Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara when he suggested, "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist."

As far back as 1835 under the leadership of one of Milwaukee's founders, Solomon Juneau, who served as the "superintendent of the poor", provisions were made to those in need. Public officials recognized that it was their ethical duty to combat material inequality, but also recognized the interconnectedness of the welfare of all their residents and the larger successful functioning of society. In 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, Milwaukee's Socialist Mayor Daniel Hoan proclaimed: "We are in the midst of a world-wide economic and social revolution that will not cease until the present industrial system, called capitalism, is entirely replaced by the next stage of human development, which is called Socialism." Loyal to his commitment to Milwaukee's poor, Hoan created one of the US's first, and most recognized public hunger relief programmes. Many praised Milwaukee's Utopian vision for dealing with hunger after the New York Times wrote in 1930, "Dozens of jobless men today received food from 'soup kitchens' as the city opened temporary commissaries to care for hungry families. Mayor Hoan, a Socialist, ordered the old policy armory kitchen thrown open tomorrow as a municipal kitchen. Temporary headquarters gave bread, milk, cheese and coffee to the hungry today."

Another significant episode, perhaps the most important for the contemporary politics of hunger in Milwaukee, began in 1971 when three young African-American men went to Milwaukee's Cross Lutheran Church within the city's African-American core to talk to Rev. Joseph Ellwanger about implementing the Black Panther Party's Free Breakfast for Children Program in the basement of his church. While the church council ultimately voted against the measure, the Milwaukee Panthers and Rev. Ellwanger set into a motion a chain of events that led to the creation of what is today known as Milwaukee's Hunger Task Force {HTF; see http://www.hungertaskforce.org//). HTF is Wisconsin's most important food bank and institutional advocate for hunger relief. Their success is largely due to their diverse partnerships that span through the city and state of Wisconsin. They have a small army of volunteers that organize food and fund drives in their workplaces, schools and churches. Funds donated by corporations, foundations and individuals support the HTF's operating costs, and ensure that their food relief programmes can be provided free of charge. The HTF provides free food to over 80 emergency feeding organizations and advocates that assist these groups work to end hunger.

Unlike other food banks, the HTF was initially established to advocate for an end to hunger within Milwaukee and across Wisconsin. Their advocacy initiatives try to foster positive socionatural changes by lobbying to sustain the vitality of programmes and public policies that exist to help the hungry. Out of the HTF's advocacy tradition evolved an activist group, called Voices Against Hunger (VAH), comprised of over 240 Milwaukeeans that since 2003 have been committed to ending hunger in Milwaukee. One of the group's current initiatives is useful for looking more specifically at the political ecology of urban hunger. Since 2004 VAH has been lobbying the Milwaukee public school system to ratify a universal free breakfast programme that could significantly reduce childhood hunger in the city. I want to mobilize Lefebvre's notion of everyday life as a theoretical lens through which to excavate the political ecology of childhood hunger as understood through my action-research with (in) Voices Against Hunger. Lefebvre (1991:18) suggested that:

Everyday life is made of recurrences: gestures of labor and leisure, mechanical movements...hours, days, weeks, months, years, linear and cyclical repetitions, natural and rational time; the study of creative activity leads to the study of re-production or the conditions in which actions producing objects and labour are re-produced, re-commenced, and reassume their component proportions or, on the contrary, undergo gradual or sudden modifications.

Through this context, Lefebvre began to demonstrate that a study of the foundations of repressive society must focus on everyday life and social reproduction. He (1991:145) suggested "the field of repression covers biological and physiological experience, nature, childhood, education, pedagogy and birth" (145). Through the everyday, the universal needs of eating and bodily/urban metabolization can be articulated in a way that many political economic/political ecological perspectives fail to articulate through their explicitly top-down, and narrow structural perspectives. The everyday socionatural relations of childhood hunger are on the one hand a result of extreme material inequality, however, stopping there without excavating what this means is only partially useful.

Part of the structural considerations inherent in the political ecology of urban hunger in Milwaukee results from Wisconsin's ranking as the 51st (worst) state in the US for low-income student participation in federally funded School Breakfast Programs. Only 23 percent of low-income Wisconsin children eat school breakfast, compared to 43 percent nationwide (FRAC 2004). Despite a 77 percent eligibility rate for free and reduced school breakfasts, only 16 percent of Milwaukee public school students eat breakfast.

This seemingly mundane topic receives little attention within the US. This is perhaps best illustrated by the latest US budget discussions that look to cut federal monies dedicated to nutritional programming orchestrated through the United States Department of Agriculture. On 17 March 2005, the US House of Representatives voted 218-214 to pass a budget resolution (House Congressional Resolution 95) that would lead to substantial cuts to nutrition programmes that benefit low-income children and families. This budget resolution mandates $216 billion in cuts to "domestic discretionary programmes" over the next five years. These programmes receive budgeted funding each year in order to operate and include WIC and WIC Farmers' Market, Summer Food, and the Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program. The House resolution would also lead to $68 billion in cuts to "entitlement programmes". These are programmes that get funding as needed to operate and are not controlled by annual budget allocations. Programmes that would likely be targeted include Food Stamps, School Lunch, and School Breakfast. Such cuts might be tolerated because their socioecological ramifications are little understood by the politicians voting on them.

Characterizing the implications of inequality regarding childhood health disparities in Milwaukee, Willis (2000) suggests that low income children in Milwaukee, which primarily means inner-city African-American children are: "almost three times more likely to experience stunted growth, and three to four more times likely to experience an iron deficiency." More specifically, the underlying biochemical physical processes at the core of childhood hunger have potentially devastating physiological consequences for childhood growth. Malnutrition impairs the body's ability to heal and decreases immune functions, leading to an infection-malnutrition cycle. Thin infants are more likely to grow up to be pre-diabetic adults. Hungry children, even when not acutely ill, become apathetic or irritable and miss critical opportunities for learning. At the very core of notions of bodily metabolization, it has been shown that eating breakfast makes a significant contribution to a child's average daily nutrient intake. This is illustrated by the fact that the average total energy intake was significantly lower for children who either skipped breakfast or who consumed breakfast at home, than for children who ate at school (Pollitt 1995). These socio-biochemical processes are the most understood component of the political ecology of childhood hunger because of the collective interest of doctors and other medical professionals.

Beyond the bodily deterioration that is a result of malnourishment and hunger, there are a host of documented behavioural relations that illustrate the externalization of childhood hunger. These socionatural relations get beyond Marx's notion that "it [hunger] therefore needs a nature outside itself, but also that hunger therefore also produces other natures outside itself. Children who eat breakfast before school begins show general increases in their math and reading scores. These children tend to have fewer discipline problems. Because they feel, and are, healthier as a result of having eaten, these children visit school nurses' offices less often (Minnesota Department of Children, Families, and Learning 1998). Children who do eat breakfast at school closer to test-taking time, perform better on tests than those who skip breakfast. Students who eat school breakfast show decreases in psychosocial problems (Murphy et al. 1998).

Focusing on urban childhood hunger helps to articulate the interconnected socionatural relations ranging from the scalar connection between the suffering caused by gastrointestinal acid buildup in children's empty stomachs, and how this in turn impedes their everyday lives through the development of physical, psycho-logical and behavioural problems. These relations can be especially useful as they provide material insight into the connections between bodily metabolization and at the fundamentally socio-physiological, psychological and behavioral level of everyday life. These connections can inform the processes of urban metabolization more generally, especially since these hungry children are often spatially clustered in low-income communities within Milwaukee.

VAH has lobbied Milwaukee public school system administrators and school board members in an attempt to help them recognize the inefficiency of having hungry children at school and the learning difficulties associated with this condition. In an effort to alleviate the ramifications of having some of the most extreme racial and income inequality rates in the US, implementing the universal free breakfast programme would give Milwaukee's political leadership the chance to improve the socioecological unevenness of the city. Just like the other Utopian efforts in Milwaukee, the efforts to fight urban hunger have contributed to the production of emancipatory social change. Urban activism and academic research have helped increase our collective understanding of the political ecology of urban hunger and contributed to the production of an emancipatory urban environment.

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