CUREJ - College Undergraduate Research Electronic Journal

Capitalism Democracy and Food Stamps: A Case for the Right to Food in the Land of Freedom and Plenty

Emilie Abrams, University of Pennsylvania

Division: Social Sciences

Dept/Program: Political Science

Document Type: Undergraduate Student Research

Mentor(s): Mary Summers

Date of this Version: 01 January 2014



14.5% of Americans do not have enough food, and over 1 in 3 Americans is obese. Yet adequate nutrition remains one of the only base human needs whose delivery to communities is not ensured by the government. The United States is one of five countries that has failed to ratify the U.N. covenant establishing a right to food. In the face of these pressing problems, most of the talk associated with movements seeking to make improvements in America’s food system has little grounding in the kind of rigorous debate about rights, and their central role in protecting individual freedom, that would garner broader respect for the goal of ensuring that all Americans have access to healthy food. This thesis makes the case for the right to food as an important part of reforming American government policies that fail to guarantee low-income Americans adequate access to healthy food.

Making a connection between theory, public discourse and policy, this thesis establishes the value of a philosophical approach to policy-making as an important means of achieving compromise, and demonstrates this in the case of a right to food. It explores four key variants of liberal philosophy, classical liberalism, libertarianism, Rawls and capabilities, which have both opposed and supported state action addressing basic economic, social and health inequalities. Supporting a right to food as consistent with long-standing ideas of the government as the protector of individual liberty, this section takes issue with the assumed conflict between welfare rights and individual liberties that is pervasive in libertarian and classical liberal thought. Instead, it will favor a Rawlsian and capabilities approach that grounds principles supporting government welfare policies in commitments to the flourishing of individual liberty. These different philosophies inform and influence policy and explain, in part, the incongruity between American reluctance to affirm international norms and extensive domestic nutrition programs, pointing to the need to deeply engage with these ideas. A serious discussion of the need to establish a right to food offers a platform for broader debate and more focused solutions for the many health and social problems we see associated with our food system in the US today.

The current state of the food system, where the amount and the quality of the food to which one has access is highly contingent on numerous factors including race, socioeconomic background and geography, is a far cry from this universal standard, established by the U.N. covenant. Ensuring the right to food is not solely relevant in countries facing scarcity; it continues to be critically important in an age of abundance, particularly in the context of special interests distorting public opinion on this issue. This thesis argues that one reason these problems are not front and center in American discourse about the problems with our food system is that this discourse is so profoundly shaped by spokespersons who speak primarily to the concerns of upper class Americans.

In the absence of being able to create Rawls’ original position from which Americans could determine just food policy without the biases of their class, this thesis argues that we need more serious philosophic voices raising the need to guarantee universal access to healthy food for all residents of the US. The US’ existing commitments, to both protecting Americans from hunger and diet-related disease, such as obesity, and to protecting individual liberties, would both benefit if the United States would formally commit to the United Nations’ definition of what the right to food requires.


American Politics | Health Policy | Political Theory | Social Policy | Social Welfare

Suggested Citation

Abrams, Emilie, "Capitalism Democracy and Food Stamps: A Case for the Right to Food in the Land of Freedom and Plenty" 01 January 2014. CUREJ: College Undergraduate Research Electronic Journal, University of Pennsylvania,

Date Posted: 02 June 2014




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