Wednesday, August 29, 2012

India's Food Fraud is Food for Thought

Like beans from a ripped sack, the facts are spilling out of today's Bloomberg report.

And they're scandalous.  According to a study conducted by Bloomberg News and detailed on their website, starvation is rampant in India while plenty of food is being grown and harvested to sufficiently feed everybody in the country.

How can this be, you ask?  Theft and corruption, of course:  India's stock in trade.

Consider the statistics Bloomberg has amassed:
  • Since 1965, India's public food distribution system for the poor has become the world's largest
  • 350 million families live below India’s poverty line of 50 cents a day
  • 21 percent of all adults in India are malnourished
  • Almost half of India’s children under 5 years old are malnourished
  • Approximately $14.5 billion in food was looted by corrupt politicians and their criminal syndicates over the past decade just in the state of Uttar Pradesh (India has 28 states)
  • 10 percent of India’s food rots or is lost before it can be distributed
  • In 2005, only 41 percent of the food set aside for the poor actually reached them

If they're correct, Bloomberg, the government of India's own records, and other third-party reports on this travesty describe a massive scale of thievery and inhumanity, and many victims aren't even aware of it.  Most of the theft takes place in India's vast, rural countryside, where illiteracy is widespread and graft endemic.  Government officials - and Bloomberg uses the term loosely - conspire with ruthless traders to intercept food intended for the poor, and then sell it on the grey and black markets.  To top it off, the government actually makes a profit, which further reduces the desire of authorities to prosecute anyone involved.

Not that any of this is surprising.  Scandalous, yes, but not surprising.  At least, not when you understand how India's culture and history revolve around a worldview in which human life holds little value.  Indeed, perhaps it's surprising that the statistics Bloomberg compiles aren't worse than they could be.  India may be the world's largest democracy, but that provides little recourse when many of its voters and the people they vote into office hold scant concern for anybody but themselves.  Granted, while no official statistics can support such an assertion, plenty of anecdotal evidence practically proves it, with the exception of a minority of Indian nationals who adhere to a Westernized belief in the sanctity of life.

Indeed, Bloomberg reports that Indians are playing key roles in uncovering this food fraud.  Unfortunately, their ability to force genuine national reform appears to be nil.

Smart Food Charity

When we discuss our political problems here in the United States, it's easy to convince ourselves that things are dire for us.  It takes sobering reality checks from reports like Bloomberg's to help put our own debates and dilemmas into perspective.  Yet even though many aspects of Bloomberg's inquiry into India's persistent starvation patterns are unique to India's way of life - or, perhaps more accurately, death - that doesn't mean that our growing concerns over the administration of our own food charity programs here in America are insignificant.

Generally speaking, liberal Americans tend to err on the side of liberality when it comes to helping poor people, while conservative Americans tend to be incredibly stingy and resentful.  Some of the resentment by conservatives is justified, at least when it's reserved for those who game the welfare system.  And some of that resentment is based on ignorance.  Recently, I read a comment ostensibly posted by a white male from suburban Boston on a Wall Street Journal article so-called entitlement programs.  He wrote that if poor people would just grow their own food, we wouldn't need food stamps.

As if the millions of Americans currently needing supplemental nutrition assistance all have backyards or farms.  And are healthy enough to hoe, dig, and pull weeds.  And don't need meat in their diet.

Stupidity aside, I still say that most American taxpayers don't begrudge the genuinely needy some public assistance.  But did you know that 84% of our farm and agriculture budget goes not to farm policy, but to nutrition programs like school lunches and food stamps?  The farm bill currently being considered by Congress will cost nearly $1 trillion over ten years.  You do the math.

Nobody's saying America doesn't have the food.  Shucks, even India has all the food it needs.  It's common knowledge that the only reason famine still exists is because political corruption does also.

Conservatives have argued that as currently structured, the safeguards for our country's government-funded food charities are not stringent enough.  Fraud by both the users of these programs, and even the grocery stores who accept food stamps, is widely known to exist.  The FDA claims that such fraud is actually declining, despite the increasing number of people registering for these charities, thanks in part to more sophisticated technology and better detective work on their part.  That's small comfort, however, since some estimates still peg the cost of food stamp fraud at three-quarters of a billion dollars.  Annually.

I've done the math here, and suffice it to say that, despite all of the zeroes, the percentage of food fraud in the United States pales in comparison to what's taking place in India.

But that's not the only difference.

Feeding our National Soul

Here in the United States, we can still do something about it.  The trick will be to remember our humanity, and find where to draw the line between people who genuinely need assistance and those who either don't, or who abuse what's supposed to help them.  Some conservatives want recipients of food charity to go to work if they're going to join a food program, but isn't that kinda missing the whole reason many people have been signing up for food charity lately?  They can't find work to begin with?

Who's making money on food stamp fraud in the United States?  One likely candidate is the grocery store industry, when unauthorized merchandise is sold to food stamp users.  The FDA reports that it has removed hundreds of stores from its approved list of vendors, but questions remain as to how much political will exists to explore how extensively our national chains participate in this fraud.  After all, that $750 million isn't being lost all at small mom-and-pop convenience stores each year, is it?

For example, what is the extent to which supermarket checkout clerks, themselves paid hardly anything, feel sympathetic to customers paying with food stamps and encourage their customers to spend fraudulently?  I have anecdotal evidence from a friend of mine in south Dallas that this is a common problem there.

Meanwhile, companies continue laying off Americans, and more and more people who previously would have never imagined needing food stamps or free school lunches find themselves grateful for the public assistance.  And isn't that what it's there for?

We don't want starvation in the United States.  Nor do we want to enable people to become dependent on programs like food stamps for the long-term.  Institutional poverty can start quite innocently, yet become exceedingly difficult to escape.  Combating food fraud is a noble goal, but so is offering aid to those of us who face a challenging financial time in their lives.

India, on the other hand, is an absolute nightmare when it comes to food fraud.  Let us not take for granted - either through waste or indifference to peoples' need - the bounty to which we all have access here in the United States.

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