Hope for the Hungry

Last Friday, the Center for American Progress hosted a very interesting panel on hunger in America. Much discussion of the problem and what the federal government should do. But, for me, the biggest insight was the optimism the panelists shared.

Joel Berg, Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, led off with two great examples.

#1. In the 1800’s, yellow fever, cholera and malaria were enormous public health problems. Many thousands of Americans died of these diseases every year. But they were viewed as just one of those unfortunate facts of life. Then the federal government got involved, and it solved the problem. How many of us, Berg asked, knew anyone in this country who had died of any of these diseases? One hand raised.

#2. In the 1930’s, a hunger investigation team went into the backwaters of the deep South. They found many people, mostly children, literally starving to death–the kind of thing we now associate with Somalia and other deeply-troubled parts of Africa. Then the federal government got involved–first with a temporary food stamp program and, more recently, with the “permanent” program, plus other nutrition assistance programs like WIC and free in-school meals.

There are still far too many “food insecure” people in the U.S.–people who sometimes don’t have enough to eat or fear they won’t. But death from starvation is very rare.  In fact, Berg said, we almost eliminated hunger in the 1970’s–before the federal government started backpedaling.

What these examples mean is that hunger in America is a problem we can solve. It won’t be politically easy because it will involve significant public investments–not only in food assistance programs, but in other programs to ensure that everyone can afford sufficient, nutritious food. But it’s nowhere near so complex (or costly) as, say, global warming.

What’s needed is the political will to do it. The food stamps benefit boost in the economic recovery package is a good first step. But it must be converted to a permanent, adequate increase.

Congress will have other opportunities when it takes up the reauthorization of child nutrition programs this spring. But that’s a subject for another posting.

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