Americans going hungry a top priority for 2010 – National Consumers League

Part two of a four-part series, in which we present the food issues we anticipate will affect American consumers the most in 2010.

By Courtney Brein, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

Even in the best of times in modern-day America, amid a near-constant stream of news about the obesity rate and the overabundance of calorie-dense foods, hunger has remained a problem in American society. The current economic downturn has caused a dramatic increase in the number of Americans going hungry.

According to a USDA report on household food security in 2008, 14.6 percent of households – comprising 49 million individuals – were “food insecure” at some point during the year.  These figures reflected a sharp rise from 2007, when food insecurity affected 11.1 percent of households, or 36 million people.  And, while the statistics on household food security for 2009 are not yet available, USDA SNAP monthly data shows that the number of Americans receiving aid from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as “food stamps,” rose dramatically throughout the year.  In December of 2008, nearly 32 million individuals were enrolled in SNAP – up from almost 28 million in the first month of the year.  By September of 2009 – the last month for which data is currently available – that number had risen to over 37 million.  As the New York Times reported at the end of November, one in eight Americans and, alarmingly, one in four children now rely on food stamps.  Approximately 20,000 new individuals enroll each day.  And as the discrepancy between food insecure individuals and SNAP enrollment reveals, a large portion of the population still experiences hunger, whether steadily or intermittently, without the benefit of the supplemental nutrition safety net.  Of those who do receive SNAP, approximately six million individuals rely on it as their sole source of income, according to a December New York Times article.

While the federal government continues to fund the ever-growing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and food pantries find creative ways to serve a growing number of clients despite declines in donations, it will require more than patches to the nutritional safety net to reign in hunger in the United States.  The Healthy People 2010 objectives set the goal of decreasing U.S. household food insecurity by 50 percent from the 1995 baseline of 12 percent to 6 percent in 2010.  Clearly, this was an overly ambitious goal.  In October 2008, during the presidential campaign, President Obama pledged to end childhood hunger by 2015.  As the official campaign statement noted, “The most effective way to eliminate childhood hunger and reduce hunger among adults is through a broad expansion of economic opportunity…Barack Obama understands that poverty is the primary cause of hunger and has a comprehensive plan to reduce and alleviate poverty.”  Coalitions such as the National Anti-Hunger Organizations (NAHO) and the Campaign to End Childhood Hunger continue to provide policy recommendations and ground-level support for meeting food security objectives, but it will require that the government make a lasting, financial commitment to providing the economic opportunities and income supports necessary to permanently reduce hunger.

In a country as wealthy as ours, access to an adequate supply of nutritious food should be a basic human right.  And for those not swayed by the moral argument, there is also a strong economic argument to be made for reducing hunger, particularly among children.  As NAHO explains:

Over the past ten years, researchers have confirmed what educators, child caregivers and healthcare professionals know through observation: When children don’t get enough nutritious food, they fall behind physically, cognitively, academically, emotionally and socially.  They, their families, communities and country suffer the life-long consequences of these reduced outcomes.  Adults who experienced hunger as children have lower levels of educational and technical skills.  Ill-prepared to perform effectively in today’s jobs, they create a workforce that is less competitive…Ending childhood hunger in America will improve the health of its people while reducing short- and long-term healthcare costs, elevate the educational status of its people, and help the nation regain its workforce competitiveness and economic strength.

The ultimate goal of hunger-relief programs should not be merely to provide the necessities of life to those who need them, but to enable all consumers to be just that – individuals able to work and earn enough money to purchase food with which to feed themselves and their families.  And, while the Healthy People 2010 objective to decrease U.S. household food insecurity to 6 percent clearly will not be met, the year 2010 is nevertheless a fitting time to commit to the reduction of hunger in America.