Category Archives: food security

Col(LAB) on Food, Risk and Privilege

by Annie Sheng, Cornell University

We experience the world and our food with all our senses, so why not get tactile as we discuss risk and privilege in relation to food? Princeton University’s Col(LAB)—a product of the synergetic confluence of collaborations between the Program in American Studies, the CST StudioLab and the Princeton Food and Agriculture Initiative—immerses participants in the intersecting spatial realms of classrooms, farmer’s markets, food pantries and dining hall kitchens to bring together various perspectives on pressing food issues through a venture involving “creativity and the unexpected,” said Anne Cheng, Professor of English and Director of American Studies. While the concepts of risk and privilege were left relatively open for interpretation, through interactive experiences, participants come together to understand how economic (in)stability, food (un)safety and social stratification may affect personal, everyday habits and decisions surrounding food. Participants included faculty, undergraduate, graduate students, staff, dining chefs, nutritionists and experts from within and beyond Princeton University.

The three-day workshop started off with a visit to the farmer’s market. Participant teams were tasked with purchasing food for a family of four within limited budget constraints. After interacting with fresh produce vendors, cheesemongers, various sellers and campus dining representatives at the farmer’s market, participants sported pens and texts and gathered to discuss readings on risk and privilege. We prepared analyses that interrogated issues of food production technologies, interspecies dependencies and slow food, drawing from writing by Allison Carruth, Anna Tsing, Angela N. H. Creager and Jean-Paul Gaudillière.

We all were asked to bring a food-related artifact, something that speaks of our own relationship to food to create a jumping off point for engaging in the questions of risk and privilege. Such personal artifacts ranged from coffee to eggs to soy-based cosmetics, as well as non-edibles such as a food scale, a mortar and pestle and a reusable water bottle. We talked of preservation and mechanical reproduction encapsulated in a can of cranberry sauce, the entitlement entailed in a jar of gourmet polenta and the caloric emptiness and capitalistic symbolism of a can of Diet Coke. For example, Tessa L. Desmond noted, “Soda companies have changed their marketing strategies to target low income neighborhoods, and kids in particular. Now it’s kind of like the suburbs. We’re vacating fast food and soda like we’ve vacated the cities for the suburbs…” The central concepts of privilege and risk framed these diverse personal food items and our conversation considered the scales of safe-to-dangerous, pure-to-toxic, sustainable-to-polluting, healthy-to-unhealthy and delicious-to-unpalatable.

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The conversation also turned to issues of culture and identity. What risks might be inherent in transmitting generationally the sense of culture through the vessel of a preserved egg—with some packages labeled lead-free and some, noticeably, not? How can and do ideas about maintaining a sense of cultural identity trump potential health risks?

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Postdoc Opportunity in Sustainability & Food Security

We have received notification from Katarzyna Dembska, BCFN YES! Coordinator, of the latest edition of their postdoc program in sustainability and food security. This is clearly a great opportunity of interest to SAFN members and FoodAnthropology readers. The announcement:

The Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition Foundation launched the seventh edition of BCFN YES! Young Earth Solutions, an international competition for PhD students and postdoctoral researchers under 35, from all over the world and from any educational background.

A maximum of three research grants of € 20,000 will be awarded in favor of innovative research proposals in one or more of the following areas:

  • Sustainable and healthy dietary patterns;
  • Sustainable agriculture;
  • Food security.

The research proposals can be submitted by individual researchers and multidisciplinary teams, until June 14th, 2018. More information on application material is available after registering on competition’s website: www.bcfnyes.com.

The authors of the ten best research projects will be invited to the International Forum on Food and Nutrition in Milan, on November 27 and 28, 2018. All travel and accommodation expenses will be covered by BCFN. Finalists will have the opportunity to present their projects in front of a panel of experts and the public of the Forum, and in this occasion, the three winning projects will be selected. You can have a look at the 2017 highlights here

The BCFN YES! Research Grant Competition is an ideal opportunity to create a new generation of sustainability experts. All finalists become part of BCFN Alumni, global network that brings together finalists of all the previous editions. The Alumni share resources and experiences, participate in workshops and events, and are in constant dialogue with other institutions to promote food sustainability and the active role of future generations within society.

Questions? Contact Katarzyna Dembska, bcfnyes@barillacfn.com.

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Where (You Might Think) There’s No Tienda

This fourth installment of the series, “Latinx Foodways in North America,” introduces the work of Teresa Mares, Associate Professor in Anthropology at the University of Vermont. Mares’s fascinating look at migrant farmworkers allows us to consider the intersections between labor and food security at the “other border” through interviews conducted with Latinx farmworkers in New England. If you would like to contribute to this collection, please contact series editor, Sarah Fouts, at saf817@lehigh.edu.

Mares Chiles

Born in New Mexico, raised in Colorado, and spending a good chunk of my adult life in Seattle, I had grown accustomed to having a ready supply of Mexican foods and ingredients close at hand. Whether it was the small tortilleria cranking out corn and wheat tortillas in the strip mall next to the Chuck E. Cheese’s in my hometown– or the taco truck in the shadows of the Amazon headquarters that I could walk to during a break from my dissertation — I never questioned the ease with which I could satisfy my own cravings. And then, in 2011, I moved to Vermont.

Sure, there’s the farm-to-table restaurant that slings delicious tacos and burritos filled with local pork, and based on the season, wildcrafted ramps and fiddlehead ferns. And yes, tucked in the bulk shelves of my local coop you might be lucky to find organic dried anchos and pasillas. There are even two tortilla factories (including one just down the road from my house) nixtamalizing, grinding, and pressing tortillas made from northern varieties of flint corn. Nearly seven years after making my way to this northern border state, these locavore offerings keep me somewhat satiated. And yet, my collection of Mexican cookbooks has swelled exponentially to guide my own attempts to reproduce meals that have that sabor that I often find myself missing, often using traveling foods that I purchase in urban locales of the U.S. and Mexico.

Here’s the thing though, I live fairly chose to Vermont’s largest city and I have the freedom to move around the landscape in search of these flavors. For farmworkers who have moved from Latin America to work in Vermont’s rural dairy farms, these advantages are not a given. Up to 95% of the migrant farmworker population in Vermont lacks personal transportation, even following the passage of legislation that allows state residents to secure a driver’s privilege cards regardless of citizenship status. Moreover, there is a realistic fear in Vermont’s border counties that visiting a food access point such as a local grocery store, farmers market, or food shelf could result in detention and ultimately deportation.

Vermont is home to an estimated 1000-1200 farmworkers, the majority of whom are men from central and southern Mexican states coming to secure year-round work in the milking barns of the state’s large industrial dairies. As of 2017, amidst the ongoing consolidation of the dairy industry, a significant number of Vermont’s dairies employed immigrant laborers. It is estimated that 68% of the state’s milk comes from farms that rely on immigrant workers (with a yearly sales of $320 million), and 43% of New England’s milk supply coming from these farms (Wolcott-MacCausland 2017). Despite contributing to the state’s economic wellbeing and the food security of millions, I have witnessed the repeated and continual disconnection between farmworkers and their foodways, a disconnection that, more often than not, began with the dispossession of rural lands and livelihoods back home. As I have discussed in my other writing, these disconnections are only exacerbated by a particular confluence of border hostilities and resulting fears that have worsened since the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

At the same time, I have also observed the resilient actions of farmworkers to remain connected to the foods that provide a tangible link to their families and their dinner tables south of the border, echoing what Meredith Abarca refers to as “culinary subjectivity.” These efforts include supporting the entrepreneurial efforts of Mexican women who have started home-based catering operations to deliver tamales, mole, and enchiladas out of the trailers they share with their husbands who labor upwards of 70-80 hours each week. It is seen in the kitchen gardens grown behind these same trailers with the support of Huertas, a shoestring project that I co-direct. It can also be observed in the deliveries that many farmworkers order and receive from mobile vendors who bring packaged and frozen foods from places as far away as New York City and Boston. These deliveries are the source of the Jumex juice cartons, half-empty bottles of Valentina hot sauce, and bags of chicharones that are often scattered on the countertops of farmworkers’ homes. Continue reading

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Food Insecurity and Chronic Malnutrition in Rural Indigenous Guatemala

SAFN GUATEIMG_1

With the title, “Latinx Foodways in North America,” we aim to put the series in a more international perspective, inclusive of the United States, Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, and Canada. Here we introduce Dr. Meghan Farley Webb’s informative piece on fieldwork methods and nutrition with indigenous communities in rural Guatemala. Her work illustrates the global framework of this series. Enjoy!

Food Insecurity and Chronic Malnutrition in Rural Indigenous Guatemala

Wuqu’ Kawoq | Maya Health Alliance is an NGO providing high-quality, evidence-based health care in indigenous communities in Guatemala. Guatemala is especially affected by chronic malnutrition, or stunting, with some Maya communities experiencing stunting rates of seventy-five percent.1 As part of our Complete Child program, we have undertaken several mixed-methods studies to explore why stunting remains a problem in Maya communities.2-3 Food insecurity, common in rural indigenous communities, contributes to the persistence of stunting in Maya communities. In some communities where we work, all households experience moderate to severe food insecurity, as measured by the FANTA Food Access and Insecurity Scale. The FANTA scale provides a quick (only nine questions) and cross-culturally reliable means of assessing household food insecurity. The scale pays special attention to the issue of reliable access to healthy food.

Poor Feeding Indicators & Food Availability

Twenty-four hour food recalls are an important tool in nutritional assessment, but they have been shown to underestimate caloric and dietary diversity in Guatemala.4 Our investigations show similar problems, in part because most rural communities have a once weekly market where diverse fruits and vegetables can be purchased. Little access to refrigeration means that nutritionally diverse foods are often not available during the week. While seven-day food frequency questionnaires report higher quantities of fruits and vegetables, children’s diets remain deficient in dairy, flesh foods, eggs, and vitamin-A rich foods. Use of these questionnaires—which query the frequency of consumption of culturally relevant food items, divided into WHO food groups—is imperfect, as it may over- or underestimate consumption of some items; however, we find they provide an accurate general assessment of dietary diversity.

In contrast to the limited availability of fresh fruits and vegetables, pre-packaged junk food is readily available in tienditas (small corner stores). Focus groups and ethnographic interviews reveal that the ease of preparation of pre-packaged foods as well as children’s requests for junk foods and their relative low cost were additional drivers for the consumption of low-quality, processed foods. The proliferation of junk foods—sometimes referred to as “coca-colonization”5—means that Guatemala must simultaneously work to combat both stunting and obesity.

Poverty & Food Expenditures

In addition to this limited access to high-quality, nutritionally diverse foods, our research shows how endemic poverty contributes to food insecurity. We use the Quick Poverty Score to assess poverty in the communities we serve. The tool uses locally relevant “poverty indicators” to assess the likelihood that a household member is at or below $2 USD or $1USD/day. It is unsurprising that many households in rural indigenous Guatemala experience high levels of poverty. On average food expenditures are low, often so low that it would be impossible to meet caloric and micronutrient needs. Our research shows that underemployment and agricultural cycles result in high variability in income, and therefore, limit money available to spend on food.

Non-Traditional Agricultural Exports

Stunting rates remain high even in agricultural communities for two reasons. First, many households do not own enough land to sustain domestic production. Second, many rural agricultural communities have shifted from milpa (corn and beans) production to production for export. In the Guatemalan highlands, broccoli, snow peas, green beans, and blackberries have replaced traditionally grown and locally eaten crops. The shift to non-traditional agricultural exports negatively impacts dietary diversity not only because of a loss of subsistence crops, but also because growing these non-traditional exports often requires taking on significant debts for seeds and other agricultural inputs. Non-traditional agricultural exports have further worsened the conditions of food insecurity as the majority of rural Maya farmers do not report economic benefits to growing these crops. This is due in large part to the practice of selling crops to middlemen, rather than directly to exporters.

Programmatic Implications & Additional Research

Our research has shown how economic and environmental factors contribute to food insecurity and chronic malnutrition in rural indigenous Guatemala. Programs aimed at improving nutritional outcomes in indigenous children must also address cultural factors. For example, focus groups and numerous clinical interactions have demonstrated the importance of secondary caregivers, especially paternal grandmothers. Multi-generational family compounds mean that mothers, at whom most nutritional programming is aimed, may not be fully in control of food purchasing and/or preparation decision making. Home-based nutritional counseling offers one way to address barriers to improving nutritional outcomes in infants and young children. Internal evaluation of our nutritional programming and a recent clinical trial demonstrate the effectiveness of such intensive, home-based nutritional counseling to improve dietary diversity, minimum acceptable diet, and height/length-for-age. More information about our research, including copies of our published work and training materials, can be found here.

Meghan Farley Webb is a Staff Anthropologist with Wuqu’ Kawoq|Maya Health Alliance.

 

1 Black, R. E., C. G. Victora, S. P. Walker, Z. A. Bhutta, P. Christian, and M. Onis. 2013. “Maternal and child undernutrition and overweight in low-income and middle-income countries.”  Lancet 382. doi: 10.1016/s0140-6736(13)60937-x.

2 Ministerio de Salud Pública y Asistencia Social, Instituto Nacional de Estadística, and Secretaría de Planificación y Programación de la Presidencia. 2015. Encuesta Nacional de Salud Materno Infantil 2014-2015: Innforme de Indicadores Básicos. Guatemala City: Ministerio de Salud Pública y Asistencia Social (MSPAS).

3 Chary, Anita, Sarah Messmer, E. Sorenson, Nicole Henretty, Shom Dasgupta, and Peter Rohloff. 2013. “The Normalization of Childhood Disease: An Ethnographic Study of Child Malnutrition in Rural Guatemala.”  Human Organization 72 (2):87-97.

4 Rodriguez, M. M., H. Mendez, B. Torun, D. Schroeder, and A. D. Stein. 2002. “Validation of a semi-quantitative food-frequency questionnaire for use among adults in Guatemala.”  Public Health Nutrition 5. doi: 10.1079/phn2002333.

5 Leatherman, T.L. and A Goodman. 2005. “Coca-colonization of Diets in the Yucatán.” Social Science and Medicine 61(4):833-846. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2004.08.047

Photo provided by the author and Wuqu’ Kawoq:

Image 1: A vendor sells fresh produce in the market. Most rural indigenous communities in Guatemala have only one market day a week.

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SfAA Report: Spatial and Temporal Dimensions of Food Insecurity

Colin Thor West
UNC Chapel Hill

Anthropologists from around the world gathered last week at the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) Annual Meeting in Vancouver, B.C. Dr. Colin Thor West (UNC – Chapel Hill) organized a two part session and roundtable titled ” Rural Livelihoods and Food Security: Ground-Truthing Global Progress.” Global assessments by the UN, FAO, WFP and other international agencies indicate we are making substantial progress toward eradicating hunger worldwide. Participants in this session discussed these positive trends but grounded them in empirical case studies. Collectively, members of the panel emphasized that on-the-ground empirical fieldwork is vital for contextualizing this global progress. Below are some highlights from the papers.

Spatial and Temporal Dimensions of Food Insecurity: The Case of Burkina Faso – Colin Thor West (UNC-CH)

Sub-Saharan Africa remains a region where hunger and food insecurity persist. Participatory ethnographic fieldwork among Mossi rural producers in northern Burkina Faso revealed a general sense of optimism that “famines of the past could never happen again.” West used a variety of secondary data to test this perception and see whether food insecurity has decreased and how this compares with other parts of the country. Using GIS, Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) monthly reports, and USAID Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) data, his team assembled a time series of food insecurity indicators. These data allowed them to detect spatial patterns and temporal trends in food insecurity from roughly 2000 to 2010. In one example, they found that the prevalence of childhood stunting decreased across all regions of Burkina Faso between 2003 and 2010 (see Figure 1), but that the northern Sahel Region remains an area where stunting rates exceed 45%.

Child Stunting Burkina Faso

Figure 1. Childhood Stunting in Burkina Faso, 2003 and 2010

Ekiuka and Black Death: Comparing Food Insecurity in Tanzania and St. Lucia – Caela O’Connell (NCSU) and Valerie Foster (Cornell U.)

Black Sigatoka disease is a fungal disease that affects banana plants all around the world. Drs. O’Connell and Foster investigate the implications of this hazard for communities in St. Lucia, a Caribbean island heavily dependent on banana exports, and Buhaya, Tanzania where bananas are an important cash and subsistence crop. In both areas, farmers are becoming increasingly threatened by this fungus as climate change creates warmer and wetter conditions that favor its spread. O’Connell’s fieldwork in St. Lucia documented how climate change and natural hazards interact to quickly turn the lingering threat of Black Sikatoka into a catastrophe (see Figure 2). St. Lucia was hit by Hurricane Tomas in 2010. The fungus was once isolated to a small area but torrential rains, landslides, and wind spread it throughout the entire island. The disease devastated banana farms throughout St. Lucia, but O’Connell’s fieldwork showed that some communities recovered more quickly than others. Communities that rely on communal family lands were less financially vulnerable and able to manage the disease outbreak more easily than those who owned their land privately and owed mortgage and loan payments. Family lands were also less susceptible to the fungal pathogen because these irregular shaped fields have natural vegetation buffers surrounding them that limit windblown spores from reaching the banana plants. In contrast, privately owned lands are surveyed blocks of regular polygons that adjoin one another and contain few or no buffers exposing them to more intense infection. Thus, the people farming family land are financially and environmentally more resilient and food secure to this double threat from agricultural disease and climate change.

St Lucia Banana plantation

Figure 2. St. Lucia Banana Plantation after the Huricane, 2012 – Photo by C. O’Connell

Other panelists presented research on efforts to reduce food insecurity in Alaska, North-East Brazil, Mali, East Africa, and Idaho. They include: Dr. Don Nelson (UGa), Jim Magdanz (UAF), Dr. Lisa Meierotta (Boise State), Dr. Tara Deubel and Micah Boyer (USF), Dr. Kathy Galvin (CSU), and Dr. Philip Loring (U Sask). Dr. J. Terrence McCabe (CU Boulder) and Dr. Timothy J. Finan (UofA) additionally participated along with the audience in the round table.

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Food Insecurity in a Globalized World: The Politics and Culture of Food Systems

This conference, taking place at Middlebury College on March 10-12, will be live streamed and recorded. The conference schedule is posted below. More information can be found here: http://www.middlebury.edu/international/rcga/international-conference/2016/schedule

 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

4:30–6:15 p.m.
The Role of the State and International Institutions

Moderator: Nadia Horning, Political Science

  • GMO Trade Negotiations as Proxy for Cultural Differences
    Patricia Stapleton, Director, Society, Technology, and Policy Program, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
  • “Erst Kommt Das Fressen”: Food insecurity and food sovereignty in Greece
    Harry Konstantinidis, Economics, University of Massachusetts, Boston
  • Scientification and Social Control: Radiation Contamination in Food and Farms in Japan
    Tomiko Yamaguchi, International Christian University, Japan

7:00–8:30 p.m.
Cultural Adaptation to Scarcity

Moderator: Mez Baker Medard, Environmental Studies

  • The Politics of Adequacy: Food provisioning, entitlements, and everyday life in post-Soviet Cuba
    Hanna GarthAnthropology, University of California, Irvine
  • No Roi (already full): Dealing with food insecurity in contemporary Vietnamese rituals
    Nir Avieli, Sociology and Anthropology, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Israel

Friday, March 11, 2016

12:30–2:00 p.m.
Socially Constructed Vulnerability and Food Insecurity

Moderator: Julia Berazneva, Economics

  • Hunger and Land in Neoliberal Nicaragua: The collision of past and present
    Birgit Schmook, Senior Researcher, Department of Conservation and Biodiversity, El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, Chetumal, Mexico, with Lindsey Carte and Claudia Radel
  • The Causes and Consequences of Njaa (hunger) in the Household: Food insecurity and intimate partner violence within a Kenyan informal settlement
    Adam Gilbertson, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Embodied Inequalities: Race, class, and food access in Washington, DC
    Ashanté M. Reese, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Spelman College

2:30–3:45 p.m.
Migration and Changing Foodscapes

Moderator: Joseph Holler, Geography

  • Seeds Sent from Home: Migrant farm worker gardens and food security in Vermont
    Jessie Mazar, University of Vermont, with Teresa Mares
  • Insecure Urban Foodscapes
    Colleen Hammelman, Geography and Urban Studies, Temple University

4:15–5:30 p.m.
War and Memory of Hunger

Moderator: Sandra Carletti, Italian

  • “Groveling for Lentils”: Hunger and Memory in Occupied France
    Paula Schwartz, French, Middlebury College
  • Bitter Greens and Sweet Potatoes: Food as embodied memory in rural China
    Ellen Oxfeld, Sociology and Anthropology, Middlebury College

Saturday, March 12, 2016

9:00–10:15 a.m.
Agroecology Access to Land and Seeds

Moderator: William Amidon, Geology

  • The Maya Land Rights Struggle: A Framework for Operationalizing “Foodways with Identity”
    Mark Chatarpal, Anthropology Department and Food Studies Institute, Indiana University, Bloomington
  • Food Security, Agro-biodiversity, and the State: The struggle to defend native corn systems in southern Mexico 
    Laurel Bellante, Geography and Development, University of Arizona
  • Agroecology and Food Sovereignty
    Margarita Fernandez, Vermont Caribbean Institute

10:30–12:00 p.m.
The Politics of Food Security

Moderator: Diego Thompson Bello, Sociology/Anthropology

  • What’s on Your Plate? Is global diet change the key to food and climate justice?
    David Cleveland, Environmental Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara
  • Governance and Power in Food (in)Security
    Molly Anderson, Food Studies, Middlebury College

12:30–2:00 p.m.
Summary

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The Flint Water Disaster: A Perfect Storm of Downplaying, Denial, and Deceit

Gregory V. Button

Flint, Michigan, the city portrayed as the embodiment of a rust belt city abandoned by deindustrialization in Michael Moore’s allegorical documentary, Roger & Me, has recently become a morality play of a different sort as it captures national headlines highlighting a controversial series of decisions creating a major public health crisis that threatens the health of Flint’s children.

After numerous complaints of the rising costs of the City of Detroit’s water and sewerage system, which the city had been dependent on for decades, the City of Flint’s controversial, non-elected, state appointed emergency manager decided in 2013 to switch from Detroit’s water system, and obtain water for the city from the Flint River until an alternative source could be developed.  The decision insured, if nothing else, that banks and bondholders to which the city is indebted, would be paid.

The decision ended up being a tragic mistake of major proportions. After the switch was made in April 2014 problems soon developed because the Flint River’s water proved to be highly corrosive, releasing lead from the old plumbing fixtures in Flint’s homes, factories, and schools. The water was so corrosive that the local GM engine plant switched their plant’s water system to another supplier because the automaker was concerned that the Flint River water would corrode their auto parts.

Tragically, the situation could have been avoided if the state had followed the EPA mandate to install corrosive preventative measures when lead levels in drinking water exceed recommended levels.  State officials further undermined the state’s integrity and the public’s confidence by claiming they were not required to install mandatory corrosive controls.

As lead levels rapidly rose to levels far exceeding the U.S. EPA’s recommended lead levels in public drinking water, Flint residents complained of malodorous, darkly colored water flowing from their home faucets, hair loss, headaches, and itchy eyes. Eventually some residents, including children, were diagnosed with lead poisoning.

Local officials downplayed the residents’ complaints and insisted that the water was safe to drink. For over a year, during which a series of mind-baffling decisions were made by the state, officials continued to downplay and deny the existence of a crisis. In an effort to avoid the scrutiny of the public, researchers, and federal authorities, state officials seemed to have chosen state and bureaucratic interests over and above the public good, creating a vortex of uncertainty and unnecessarily and inexcusably prolonging the crisis. The river water increased the exposure of Flint residents to lead, a potent neurotoxin that crosses the brain’s barrier and can adversely affect nearly every system in the body. Lead endangers the health of both children and adults causing slow growth, learning disabilities, anemia, and hearing problems. Children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of lead.

As evidence continued to mount that there was a serious public health problem, local and state officials continued to downplay the situation, deny that there was a problem, and deceive the public even when scientific evidence emerged contradicting their claims .  Residents were stunned when documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) revealed that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and state public health officials had, in an effort to deceive the public, altered documents contradicting the officials’ claim that the water was safe to drink.

In the ensuing months as state officials continued their denials and cover-ups local residents and independent public health researchers accused officials of hiding data, misleading the public and ignoring solid scientific research that clearly demonstrated the public was at risk. Independent researchers from the University of Virginia provided robust evidence demonstrating that lead levels in sampled city water exceeded 100 parts per billion.

This was a staggering finding: the EPA allows only 15 parts per billion in drinking water and, in reality, there is really no level that is considered to be safe. Additionally, a team of physicians and public health researchers published a report that showed that elevated lead blood levels increased after the water switch from 2.9% to 4.9% and in some neighborhoods rose as high as 6.3%.

Residents were further shocked when it was eventually revealed, through yet another FOIA request, that city, county, and state officials believed in the aftermath of the water switch that a deadly Legionnaire’s disease outbreak, resulting in the death of ten people, may have been attributable to the switch of the city’s water to the polluted waters of the Flint River.

Outrage continued recently when it was revealed that top administrators in the EPA’s regional Midwest office were aware, as long ago as last April, of Flint’s failure to install mandatory corrosion controls and the potential for adverse public health effects. Instead of informing the public of their concern, they delayed releasing the information to the public for several months while they battled with the state over EPA’s legal authority to enforce the federal mandate requiring Flint to install corrosion controls.

Over a year and a half after the crisis began, the state finally relented. Governor Snyder tardily apologized for the tragedy to the citizens of Flint, declared a state emergency, called out National Guard troops to distribute bottled water, and eventually asked President Obama to declare a national emergency, which would enable the state to receive federal assistance. On January 16, 2016 President Obama declared a ninety-day federal emergency, thereby qualifying the city of Flint to receive bottled water, water filters, filter cartridges and even whole house water filters. Unfortunately, the declaration does not provide the state of Michigan with an estimated $600 million dollars necessary to replace Flint’s deteriorating water system, which may be the only way to fully alleviate the problem in the long-term.

Local and national media coverage of this tragic event has garnered considerable national attention resulting in calls ranging from a demand for a federal investigation to the arrest of Governor Snyder (a man whose corporate approach to government and reliance on unelected, state appointed emergency managers is thought by many to undermine local democracy). There are even some people who embrace a conspiracy theory that the children of Flint were poisoned intentionally.

Outrage has been propelled not only by what some believe to be gross malfeasance but also because of the fact that Flint, one of the poorest municipalities in the State of Michigan, has long suffered from racial discrimination, and ranks at the bottom of the state in rates of childhood poverty – as well as the glaring fact that 41.5 % of its residents live below the poverty level and nearly 60% of Flint residents are African American (see  Hanna, A. J. Le Chance, R.C. Sadler, A. C. Schnepp. 2015 “Elevated lead levels in children associated with the Flint drinking water crisis: A spatial analysis of risk and public health response.” American Journal of Public Health. Available online: http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdf/10.2105/AJPH.2015.303003); all of which, even upon initial observation, makes a compelling case for a  morality play about structural violence.

The author has been investigating the Flint water crisis since its inception and is currently writing a journal article and a report on the ongoing crisis. He can be reached at gregvorybutton@mac.com and 734-417-3371.

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