Opinion: A strategy to take on our most pressing challenges

A food drive at Family Centers in Greenwich last year.

A food drive at Family Centers in Greenwich last year.

Christian Abraham, Staff Photographer / Hearst Connecticut Media

Visualize an individual who at first seems drab, even boring, but gradually excites listeners with unexpected, riveting ideas. That’s an image fitting this subject matter, which involves strategies for dealing with some of the painful crises that often appear in Americans’ discussions and concerns — in this instance mass killings and food anxiety and hunger.

A prominent journalist has addressed the formidable challenge mass killings present, emphasizing the potential effectiveness of the concept “harm reduction” — policies focused on lessening if not eliminating the destructive effects of a major problem.

Let’s begin with a statistic. In 2021 firearms in the United States killed a record 48,000 people. The total included homicides, suicides and accidents, with Americans expressing a variety of opinions about the proliferation of guns. While individuals can continue to battle endlessly over the issue, harm reduction uses reforms that have already produced well-documented positive outcomes.

Despite recent mass killings, California’s big picture is impressive, showing a “firearms mortality rate … 38 percent below the nation’s overall.”

The state has some of the nation’s most constructive gun-protective policies — in particular, prohibiting firearms ownership for candidates considered stalkers or instigators of violent behavior. California is one of 19 states that has a “red flag law” recognizing that police or other authorities have the right to deny gun ownership to high-risk individuals. When potentially violent people are concerned, state residents can seek a court order preventing a partner or employee from having guns.

Another use of harm reduction to promote gun control involves copying anti-smoking initiatives. The journalist cited earlier indicated that each year smoking produces around 480,000 American deaths, about 10 times the number from gun killings, with second-hand smoke claiming about double the count for gun victims.

The measures include burdensome cigarette taxes, the prevention of sales to buyers under 21, and frequent warnings — for instance, anti-smoking advocates declaring that “[k]issing a smoker is like licking an ashtray.” Relentless efforts to attack this problem have cut “smoking rates by more than two-thirds since 1965.” It seems very likely that similar actions could also diminish gun ownership.

Harm reduction also proves useful in protecting people from another deeply troubling matter. Writers from the Center for American Progress, a think tank which relies on dynamic ideas, have asserted that it is critical to limit food insecurity and hunger, which undermine “health, well-being, and quality of life” for millions of Americans.

Recent research has found that nearly 24 million households, almost half of which have children under 18, reported that they sometimes or often went hungry. It turns out that the U.S. “has a fragmented, broken food production and distribution system that fails to meet the basic needs of millions of people.” The problem is so gigantic that it may discourage many individuals into believing that no real improvements are available, but even modest political and corporate support for making reforms can contribute significantly.

Remarkably the country produces more than enough food to feed its entire population, but each year the food industry and countless individuals discard 160 billion edible tons — over a third of the total produced. A writer for the Environmental Defense Fund concluded that “[i]f all of that food was grown in one place, the farm would cover three-quarters of California.”

Feeding America is the nation’s largest hunger-relief charity, relying on food banks that obtain surplus food from farmers, food chains, and restaurants and keep it fresh until their members can donate it to hungry people who are often in distant locations. The harm reduction they have achieved has been formidable. Since its founding in 1979, Feeding America has salvaged over 4.7 billion meals, with 200 food banks and 60,000 pantries serving one out of seven Americans.

The organization’s leadership emphasized that their “ network of food banks is in every county in the country. Our programs help provide meals to children, seniors, families, and survivors of natural disasters.”

In brief, here’s what we’ve covered. Some of the nation’s most urgent and painful issues are hard to tackle because they provoke intense disagreements often emanating from polarized political beliefs (e.g. gun safety) or because their solutions require enormous resources (e.g. food insecurity), and in such cases harm reduction can contribute significantly. The concept recognizes that even if we can’t eliminate the problems, there are potent means to reduce the damage they cause.

Nowadays it’s well worth remembering that harm reduction strategies can become increasingly effective over time and also provide a personal bonus — powerful insights and gratification for those engaging in them.

Chris Doob is an emeritus professor of sociology at Southern Connecticut State University and the author of a variety of books involving sociology and sports.