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Going Hungry in America

Politicians often talk about 'poverty in America.' They rarely mention the growing and often deadly problem of hunger.
 
 
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Today the United States faces a hidden epidemic. It is striking Americans of every age group and ethnicity, whether they live in cities or rural areas. And despite the diversity of targets, those suffering in this silent epidemic have two things in common: they are poor or low-income, and they are increasingly going without enough food.

Although politicians talk about "poverty in America," decision-makers avoid specifically mentioning the growing, and often deadly problem of hunger. George McGovern said in 1972, "To admit the existence of hunger in America is to confess that we have failed in meeting the most sensitive and painful of human needs. To admit the existence of widespread hunger is to cast doubt on the efficacy of our whole system."

Three decades later, evidence indicates that the existing system is failing a vast number of Americans.

A look at the United States reveals a wide gap between the goal of universal access to adequate nutrition and the reality of hunger that plagues millions in this country alone. The number of hungry people in the United States is greater now than it was when international leaders set hunger-cutting goals at the 1996 World Food Summit. The pledges by United States government leaders to cut the number of Americans living in hunger – from 30.4 million to 15.2 million by 2010 – are lagging behind. An estimated 35 million Americans are food insecure with food insecurity and the necessity of food stamps being experienced by at least four in 10 Americans between the ages of 20 and 65. That's 50 percent of the population.

Meanwhile, the already burdened food safety-net program, which was designed to alleviate hunger and food insecurity, is under attack by the threat of reduction of funding and ease of enrollment by policy makers. With food expenses being the most elastic part of a family's budget, as limited funds usually get allocated to fixed payments first, such as rent and utilities, food purchasing has become the most compromised portion of the average family's budget. So far in 2004, 35 percent of Americans have had to choose between food and rent, while 28 percent had to choose between medical care and food. Others, forced to stretch their budgets ever further, are buying less expensive but often less nutritious food.

The problem is worse in low-income neighborhoods and inner-city areas that face food red-lining. The majority of low income/minority neighborhoods do not have enough supermarkets to serve the entire community effectively. Therefore, these communities generally meet their food needs at smaller, more expensive corner stores – especially at liquor/convenience marts that tend to provide less nutritious foods and little if any fresh produce.

While three companies control 57 percent of the huge food retail market in California, the community of West Oakland, with 32,000 residents and a 60 percent unemployment rate has only one supermarket – and 40 liquor and convenience stores. The price of food in these small stores is almost 30 to 100 percent higher than the price in the grocery store.

The most vulnerable – children, immigrants and rural families – are hit hardest by this epidemic. Despite evidence that hunger causes chronic disease development and impaired psychological and cognitive functioning in children, an estimated 13 million children are living in households that are forced to skip meals or eat less due to economic constraints.

The worst off are the children of 6 million of America's undocumented immigrants: they go without necessities such as milk and meat on a daily basis.

Tulare County in California, the number-two county in the nation for agricultural production, is one of the hungriest and poorest areas of California. Many of the county's towns (Alpaugh, Earlimart, Plainview, Woodville, etc.) host mainly Hispanic farm-laborer families who came to America hoping for a better life, only to find that their jobs – putting put cheap produce on America's and the world's tables – have left them starving amidst the bounty. These families suffer from the appalling economic and social injustices. They live in lean-tos made of plastic or cardboard, dilapidated trailers, wood shacks, caves and even parking lots, and yet are surrounded by vineyards and fruit tree orchards.

This kind of hunger rarely makes the evening news. Millions starve while Bush signs a $400 billion spending bill in August 2004 that will largely go to military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bush administration has already spent $150 billion on the war in Iraq – three times the original estimate. The United States already accounts for nearly half of the world's military spending. This means that the U.S. spends on defense nearly as much as the rest of the world combined.

It is going to be a grim holiday season for millions this year. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed 56 years ago this week, committed our government to provide a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of every person. This included commitments to respect, protect, facilitate and fulfill the right to food, clothing, housing, medical care, and necessary social services in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability or old age. A widely supported statement at the time, the promises of the declaration seem outrageous to many in today's age of "personal responsibility."

It might be useful to ask: What's more outrageous? A broad and sturdy safety net and living wage jobs for all members of our society? Or one out of four children going hungry and poor in the richest country on earth?

Anuradha Mittal is executive director of the Oakland Institute and the former codirector of Food First/ Institute for Food and Development Policy.