Ending Hunger in America: A Step-by-Step Approach
In 2010, 16 million children lived in food insecure households and 22 percent of all American children lived in poverty. These facts are unacceptable. The United States should be and can be a place where all children have the adequate and nutritious food they need to build healthy bodies and strong minds, allowing them to reach their full potential. This is a practical as well as a moral imperative—making sure children are well fed is necessary if America is to reach its health, education, economic, and fiscal goals.
Yet it is not enough to feed children and leave parents in crisis. When parents themselves are struggling with hunger, even while they feed their children adequately, there are adverse effects not just for parents but for the development, health, mental health, and learning of children. That’s why ending childhood hunger must also mean ending family food insecurity.
Some say the nation can’t afford to make addressing hunger a priority. Voters, however, disagree. Polls have consistently found that voters want government and political leaders to address this problem and make sure that everyone has enough to eat.
This expectation is reasonable—ending hunger is an attainable task. The Obama for America presidential campaign recognized this in 2008 in its position paper, “Tackling Domestic Hunger,” which committed to ending childhood hunger by 2015 – a goal the Administration since has reiterated frequently – and to addressing hunger and poverty more broadly.
The key to getting there is strong public policy. As important as charity is, charitable providers will be the first to admit that they cannot provide the solution. Currently, federal nutrition programs are providing 15 to 30 times more food to low-income Americans than emergency food providers. Only the federal government has the resources and reach to end hunger.
Here are the key strategies for successfully ending hunger:
First, there needs to be strong leadership to create an economy that provides jobs with family-supporting wages. We must strive to ensure that all Americans get a fair share of economic growth as the economy recovers. President Obama’s “Tackling Domestic Hunger” analysis made the important point that “[t]he most effective way to eliminate childhood hunger and reduce hunger among adults is through a broad expansion of economic opportunity.” Parents want jobs, good wages, and benefits. Create those jobs and parents will do the bulk of the work in addressing childhood hunger.
Second, the federal government needs to do more to supplement family incomes when wages aren’t enough. More than just nutrition programs, families need stronger unemployment insurance, low-income tax credits, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income, health and child care assistance, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), and other supports. Nutrition programs alone can’t carry the whole burden of ending hunger when jobs and wages fall short.
Third, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the nation’s most important direct defense against hunger. It gets nutrition to seniors, parents, children, and others in mainstream commercial ways (at regular grocery stores), with personal choice and limited stigma, especially since the replacement of coupons with EBT cards. The program is fundamentally strong, but needs key improvements, including those proposed through the current Farm Bill reauthorization. In particular, benefit levels must be increased—the maximum monthly allotment now typically carries even the most careful of families through three-quarters or four-fifths of the month, and makes purchases for a healthy diet especially difficult.
Fourth, strengthening the child nutrition programs must be a bigger focus. This covers school lunches and breakfasts, afterschool and summer food, the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and child care food. Not only are they essential tools for addressing childhood hunger, but they also prevent obesity, strengthen schools and child care programs, and boost children’s health, development, and school achievement. National, state, and local policies and practices should be changed to aggressively enroll the many eligible but not participating children, reduce paperwork, take full advantage of federal policy options, and improve meal quality.
Fifth, we need to make sure families have convenient access to affordable, healthy food. Living in a “food desert” makes it far harder for a low-income family to stave off hunger and stay healthy. Struggling families need accessible grocery stores selling a variety of food, including fresh produce, at reasonable prices.
Lastly, we need everyone to fully engage in ending hunger. This includes all agencies and White House offices and initiatives that touch the lives of low-income families and communities - not just the Department of Agriculture - along with business, labor, and the nonprofit community.
This also means working closely with states. Even in the best performing states, participation rates in nutrition programs often lag badly. State officials, local officials, schools, and nonprofits must engage in active outreach and adopt strategies that maximize participation and benefits in federal programs. Whether or not a child is hungry shouldn’t depend on an accident of birth, or where she lives.
There are far too many hungry people in the U.S. The best way to end this scourge is to ensure that everyone – seniors, working age adults and children, working families, the unemployed, and residents of every state – is well fed. The way forward is clear.
James Weill is the president of the Food Research and Action Center.
This commentary was originally published by Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity. It is reprinted here with permission.