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CQ WEEKLY – COVER STORY May 12, 2008 – Page 1238
Sharper Pangs of Food Insecurity'
By Aliya Sternstein, CQ Staff The rest of the world is focused on food, while most Americans seem to take it for granted. Prompted by shortages and extraordinary price increases, developing countries are experiencing riots, and some are rationing staples such as rice and other grains or barring exports. Still, a close look at the growing clientele of local food banks and rising food stamp rolls shows that the United States isn’t immune from this worsening global crisis. Soaring grocery prices are contributing to a new kind of malnourishment in America. The face of hunger today is the elderly couple on a fixed income that skips dinner and the elementary schoolchild who misses breakfast. Instead of the skinny arms and bloated bellies seen across the globe, the United States has an obesity epidemic and a higher incidence of diabetes, partly because many people cannot afford to eat better. Healthful fruits, vegetables and low-fat products are often out of reach.
PITCHING IN: Faduma Abukar assembles bags of groceries for distribution to needy families last week at the food pantry operated by United Community Ministries in Alexandria, Va. (Source: CQ / SCOTT J. FERRELL.)
The cost of food bought for domestic home consumption rose faster in 2007 than at any time since 1990, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Eggs were 29 percent more expensive in December than a year earlier. Milk was up almost 20 percent. A chicken for stewing was almost 10 percent more expensive, and the price of tomatoes for the stew pot jumped twice as much as the hen. For some people, those sorts of prices mean choosing between eating and putting a roof over their heads. “We have a problem with hunger that to me is every bit as significant as the global warming problem,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat who is co-chairman of the bipartisan Congressional Hunger Center. “There is not a single community in the United States that is hunger-free.” The share of U.S. households that have trouble putting enough food on the table has held roughly static between 10 percent and 12 percent for the past decade, government figures show. Yet as more Americans have faced economic hardship in recent months, food stamp offices and social service agencies report a rising demand for help. Federal food assistance programs have come a long way toward eliminating severe malnutrition and even chronic hunger in this country, but they still aren’t robust enough, say those fighting to increase resources. Eligibility requirements for assistance, including food stamps and free school lunches, are too narrow and the benefits are inadequate, as low as $10 a month for many needy senior citizens. “Running out of food in the third or the fourth week of the month is a lot better than running out of food in the first week of the month by a long shot,” said James D. Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center. “But we are an affluent enough country that we can afford to provide people the help they need to eliminate hunger and food insecurity.”
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had “low food security” that year.. cut down on the size or frequency of meals. cities and charitable groups to provide assistance. Still. a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks that operate with the help of federal commodity donations. but “we’re going to see an increase in hunger in the United States if we don’t get serious about the crisis now. because they didn’t have enough money for food.1 million in the six months that ended in January. Republican-sponsored child nutrition measure. Congressional negotiators sealed a deal on the new farm bill last week. the Department of Agriculture found that just under 4 percent of households. three times as large as the increase for the same period a year ago.php?id=weeklyreport110-.” said Chris Edwards.” McGovern said. director of tax policy for Cato. from 2006. but food aid programs should be closed down as well. The Hunger Spectrum Hunger in America is colorblind.com/cqweekly/document. only five lawmakers voted “no” four years ago when the House passed a broad. “I don’t believe there is a role for the federal government in such food aid. A much larger category of about 7 percent of households.” Yet that is a decidedly minority view.” rather than “hungry. including about 8 million adults and more than 3 million children. Some advocates of smaller government.CQ Weekly http://library. But advocates say it will take a substantial increase in investment in those programs — above the roughly $60 billion the federal government will spend this year — plus easier access and a vigorous effort to shatter the stigma associated with food aid to begin to eradicate hunger in America. which meant they occasionally didn’t know where the next meal was coming from. favor curtailing federal food aid and relying on states. like poverty generally. The department refers to this category of Americans as having “very low food security.5 million different people received emergency food assistance from the network in any given week. America’s Second Harvest.” choosing to avoid that term because it refers to a separate physiological condition. 2 of 7 9/19/2011 2:34 PM . “I would start cutting the federal government by ending items like business subsidies. such as the libertarian Cato Institute. And the available evidence suggests that the level of need is rising rapidly. In its most recent study. Moreover.. The roster of food stamp recipients jumped by about 1. His organization aims to improve government nutrition policies and helps coordinate the work of anti-hunger organizations. For instance. Food stamp enrollment thus far this year has averaged about 28 million recipients each month. and federal food aid typically enjoys strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. such apparently deep support belies the difficulty of increasing federal assistance in a time of rising budget deficits and intense fights between the Democratic Congress and President Bush over increases in domestic social spending. Beyond that. and ate less than they thought they should. And. hunger can come on unexpectedly.cqpress. it’s hard to know the severity of the problem. Roughly 4. lawmakers and anti-hunger advocates are promoting changes in federal laws to bolster the amount of commodities handed over to food banks and increase the amount of fruits and vegetables included in the diets of impoverished Americans. because no government agency tracks hunger on a regular basis. It has actively worked to win enactment of a pending measure that would reauthorize federal farm subsidies for five years because the bill would also renew and expand food stamps and other nutrition assistance programs. including more than 9 million children. including a five-year reauthorization of the free and reduced-price school lunch program. People here may not be dying of malnutrition as they are in other countries. says it served 25 million individuals in 2005.
Jo Ann Emerson. the rising cost of oil and transportation.S. which conducts a study of its operations every four years. Second Harvest reported a 9 percent increase between 2001 and 2005 in its last study. the group estimates that it has seen a 20 percent increase in the number of people turning to its services in the past year. and even speculation in futures markets where many commodity prices are established. (Source: CQ / SCOTT J. dinner may have lost out to needed prescription medicines one month.” Weill said. researchers say. For many of those Americans. changes in farming patterns to focus on biofuel production. while 35 percent had to decide between paying for meals and paying their rent or mortgage. Although the surveys aren’t strictly comparable. Brandeis University and Loyola University of Chicago. Anti-hunger advocates say they don’t expect those trends to change any time soon. McGovern uses his position as co-chairman of the Congressional Hunger Center to advocate for increased spending to combat malnutrition in the United States. a vice president at America’s Second Harvest. Many factors contribute to the rising cost of food and the resulting inadequate nutrition. given that the country had a serious hunger problem before the economy began slowing considerably at the end of last year. poor harvests. increased demand in emerging economies. From anecdotal reports. “I think we’re in for a period of high food inflation that’s going to last two. 3 of 7 9/19/2011 2:34 PM . Those most concerned about high food prices cite a weakening U. It’s not just the poorest of the poor who find themselves occasionally without food. Emerson noted. Lunch Money: Click Here to View Chart The expense to the nation of millions of hungry Americans is an estimated $90 billion a year or more when such costs as the need for additional health care and impaired worker productivity are included. Many food banks nationwide are calling this “the worst situation they’ve had in decades.php?id=weeklyreport110-.. FERRELL. a Missouri Republican who is co-chairwoman of the Congressional Hunger Center. LEADING THE FIGHT: Massachusetts Democratic Rep. “Most people don’t realize that the majority of food stamp recipients have an income. three years or more.) The organization. dollar that increases the relative cost of commodities worldwide.” said Maura Daly.” said Rep. or their employers may have reduced their hours in another.com/cqweekly/document.CQ Weekly http://library. and we’re in a recession that’s going to have a particularly adverse impact on the bottom working families who are already struggling to make do. reports that 40 percent of its patrons in 2005 were white. And about 36 percent of Americans who patronized food banks in 2005 came from working households. 38 percent were black and 17 percent were Hispanic..cqpress. The group said 42 percent of its clients reported having to pick between paying for food and paying for utilities. according to a study done last year by professors at Harvard University. The program is largely meant to be a supplement for working Americans.
which pays stipends to the elderly. For example. according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS). the structure of the program has evolved from an outlet for surplus agricultural production. so they take medications on an empty stomach and end up in the hospital. Thompson. food stamps account for more than 60 percent of the USDA’s nutrition expenditures. “There are people who can’t afford medicine and food. demand for non-government food assistance surged after the food stamp program was cut back at the urging of President Ronald Reagan in 1981 and participation in the program fell from 22. the shared state and federal health insurance for the poor. Success Story Food stamps. found that charities pay when hunger goes unchecked. blind and disabled. government aid responds automatically.cqpress.” she said. the nation’s competitiveness suffers when students don’t eat enough to concentrate on coursework..” said Craig Gundersen.php?id=weeklyreport110-.” said McGovern. commissioned by the Sodexho Foundation. That means as the economy worsens. Infants and Children (WIC) feeding program. an agricultural policy professor at University of Illinois. Most food banks in the nation were inaugurated in the early 1980s as a direct result of cuts in social spending. the years coinciding with the nationwide rollout of the food stamp program and the beginning of the Women. food stamps are estimated to move almost 10 percent of recipients out of poverty. after Medicaid. Urbana-Champaign. food stamps can provide some 25 percent of their purchasing power.6 million in 1988. have proved to be a major weapon in the fight against hunger. “When its benefits are added to other income. Food stamps are intended to give low-income families a chance to obtain at least a minimally adequate diet. The school lunch program accounts for 16 percent and WIC 10 percent. Daly said. the earned-income tax credit. expressing frustration with the complications that arise when people can’t afford to eat properly. said Robert L. which delivers money to the working poor. by far the largest share of the federal nutrition effort. The study. “I really feel the food stamp program has had a profound impact on hunger and food insecurity in the United States. it is the fourth-biggest need-based assistance program. even if the share of American households that can’t be sure of eating every day has been static for a decade. for a typical low-income recipient family with children. and.CQ Weekly http://library. which supplements the diets of low-income pregnant and postpartum women and their young children. after Hurricane Katrina. to a major poverty policy.. Agriculture Department surveys found that the diets of poor Americans improved markedly between 1965 and 1978.com/cqweekly/document. Today. Food stamps are “vastly more efficient” at assisting needy families than giving them surplus government food. family studies and economics professor at Iowa State University.4 million to 18. storm victims who lost their homes and refrigerators still had access to food. 4 of 7 9/19/2011 2:34 PM . Over time. with food aid being a side benefit. and the Supplemental Security Income program. The program’s advocates cite as one of its acute strengths its status as an entitlement that pays benefits to all eligible Americans who apply. Costs of USDA Programs: Click Here to View Chart And although it is difficult to distinguish the impact of nutrition programs from the effects of other assistance programs and economic factors. a human development. Today. and the health care system pays for mental and physical illnesses linked to inadequate nutrition. and then progressively grew through the ’80s. “We grew from one food bank to 13 food banks in our first year of existence in 1979. the government’s largest nutrition assistance program.” the CRS said in a March report.
Gundersen said. “The funding is keeping pace. In the eight fiscal years from 2001 to this year. they say. Although food stamps will benefit new enrollees as the economy weakens.. despite their eligibility.) Free and subsidized school lunches and summer nutrition programs have also helped alleviate hunger among children. USDA deputy undersecretary for food. but the novelty is that some may be adopted. In addition. researchers and government officials say. to $60 billion. “it just doesn’t help enough. food banks report big increases in demand. The new farm bill — if it becomes law — is expected to revolutionize federal food assistance by giving free fruits and vegetables to more school-age children. nutrition spending increased 76 percent. Many of their ideas aren’t new. Houston said.com/cqweekly/document. the Bush administration has supported domestic nutrition programs at unprecedented levels. eligibility requirements. Moral Issue Anti-hunger advocates on and off Capitol Hill who are urging that more money be spent on feeding programs are positioning their cause as both a moral and economic issue in the face of ever tighter budgets.” Part of the challenge is that food stamps don’t reach everyone who could benefit: Only 65 percent of eligible Americans participate. There is also a sharp stigma attached to applying for handouts. lavishing aid on food pantries and linking benefits to food prices. Advocates complain that many working Americans cannot get to an enrollment office during normal business hours. Roughly four out of 10 hungry Americans don’t apply.” Despite budgetary constraints. nutrition and consumer services. But some observers contend that there are weaknesses in the programs that become more apparent in times of hardship. STRETCHED THIN: Elderly San Francisco residents wait in line for assistance at a neighborhood food pantry. she said. States of Insecurity: Click Here to View Chart 5 of 7 9/19/2011 2:34 PM . exclude a quarter of the senior citizens who would qualify for the program based on their income alone. even if the coupons now come packaged in a discreet electronic debit card.CQ Weekly http://library. he said.php?id=weeklyreport110-. “I think we have a strong safety net in place that is resilient and able to expand and contract based on economic need. (Source: GETTY IMAGES / JUSTIN SULLIVAN. “Our programs really rise to the occasion. which take into account household assets and income. and USDA expects to spend $64 billion on all nutrition programs in fiscal 2009.cqpress.” said Kate Houston. Entitlement dollars don’t stretch as far when prices are rising. Nationally.. Weill said. Houston said.” and the government is reaching those most in need.
McGovern complains that lawmakers aren’t held accountable when they vote against nutrition legislation.” said Rosa DeLauro.. And Emerson. and promote more locally grown fruits and vegetables. Second Harvest’s Daly credits the Bush administration with boosting food stamp spending. and the American people agree with that statement. He said the Agriculture Department should work more closely with state officials to make enrollment simpler. improve its nutrition standards. “We need to figure out a way to make it politically difficult to vote against anti-hunger initiatives. ate only what they could buy with food stamps for one week to raise public awareness.” Obesity has raised enough red flags that Congress is likely to hone in on prevention when the child nutrition bill comes up for reauthorization.” she said. has already introduced a bill that would require the USDA to revise the definition of “food of minimal nutritional value. including McGovern. Last year. So he’s writing legislation that would call for a White House Conference on Hunger and Nutrition. she predicted. Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin. Under his proposal.com/cqweekly/document. “A problem has to build to be a real crisis before it gets addressed.” he said. which has four Republicans among its 30 cosponsors. nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest whose chief interest is curbing obesity.” said Margo Wootan.” But today. He adds that the government should build upon its earlier efforts to ease the stigma surrounding food aid programs. to safeguard the health and well-being of the nation’s children. which was last renewed in 2004. more could be done to sign up eligible Americans for food assistance. Provisions in the farm bill that would increase the minimum benefit and broaden eligibility will strengthen the safety net. such as one that aids almost a half million low-income senior citizens.CQ Weekly http://library.. Outreach campaigns could draw upon endorsements from former food stamp recipients who are now celebrities.” Many advocates are also banking on a renewal of the school lunch program next year to ensure the next generation is better fed. researchers say. “My goal will be to expand the free school lunch program.cqpress. “I think it has to do with that there are so many competing priorities. but Congress does not think hunger should exist in America. Public health advocates lament that there are always difficulties finding scarce resources. school authorities are struggling to offer children a balanced diet and keep a balanced budget. This summer. the Senate Hunger Caucus plans staff-level briefings to touch on issues that are likely to arise. Daly said that if the farm bill agreement unveiled last week isn’t enacted — Bush hasn’t ruled out a veto — then food banks will be left “on the brink of catastrophe. chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.” The definition currently determines which items are prohibited for use in school lunch and breakfast programs. The authors of last year’s Sodexho-sponsored study noted that experts calculate that an increase in federal nutrition spending 6 of 7 9/19/2011 2:34 PM . “These changes increase the budget of the program. Food Prices for the Home: Click Here to View Chart Even within the limits of current laws. but she criticizes the White House for attempting to eliminate other smaller and more narrowly targeted nutrition programs. the prohibition would be broadened to cover foods sold on campus outside lunch and breakfast. who sits on the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee and describes the food stamp program as efficient. Congress gave the program permanent status in 1946. in advance of next year’s planned debate on the school lunch law.php?id=weeklyreport110-. a Connecticut Democrat and chairwoman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. she said. deeming school lunches “a measure of national security. several lawmakers. acknowledges that there is room to improve it. Gundersen says. The application process for food stamps is cumbersome. said Iowa State’s Gundersen. requiring extensive documentation and return trips for recertification.
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