Hunger in the U.S.: A Problem as American as Apple Pie

Personal Health

The following is an excerpt from All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America, by Joel Berg.

We have long thought of America as the most bounteous of nations … [t]hat hunger and malnutrition should persist in a land such as ours is embarrassing and intolerable. More is at stake here than the health and well-being of [millions of] American children. … Something like the very honor of American democracy is involved. -- President Richard Nixon, May 6, 1969, Special Message to Congress Recommending a Program to End Hunger in America

Try explaining to an African that there is hunger in America. I’ve tried, and it’s not easy.

In 1990, while on vacation, I was wandering alone through the dusty streets of Bamako, the small capital of the West African nation Mali, when a young man started walking alongside me and struck up a conversation. At first, I thought he wanted to sell me something or ask me for money, but it turned out he just wanted to talk, improve his English and learn a little about America. (He had quickly determined by my skin color that I was non-African and by my sneakers that I was American.)

When he asked me whether it was true that everyone in America was rich, I knew I was in trouble. How could I explain to him that a country as wealthy as mine still has tens of millions suffering from poverty and hunger? How could I explain to him that America -- the nation of Bill Gates, "streets paved with gold," Shaquille O’Neal and all-you-can-eat-buffets -- actually has a serious hunger problem? That in a country without drought or famine and with enough food and money to feed the world twice over 1-in-8 of our own people struggles to put food on their tables?

In Mali, such a statement was a hard sell. While that nation has one of the planet’s most vibrant cultures, it also has one of the least-developed economies. The country has a per capita annual income of $470, meaning the average person makes $1.28 per day -- and many earn far less than that, eking out subsistence livings through small-scale farming or other backbreaking manual labor. With the Sahara desert growing and enveloping ever-increasing swaths of Mali, the nation frequently suffers from widespread drought and famine. According to the United Nations, 28 percent of Mali’s population is seriously undernourished.

I tried to tell him that not all Americans were as rich as he thought, and that much of the wealth he saw was concentrated among a small number of people while the majority toiled to make a basic living. I explained that living in a cash economy such as America’s presents a different set of challenges than living in a subsistence and barter-based economy, which exists in much of Mali. That in America, you have to pay a company for oil, gas and all other basic necessities. You must pay a landlord large sums of money to live virtually anywhere. That while many workers in America earn a minimum wage equaling less than $11,000 a year for full-time work (the U.S. federal minimum wage was then $5.15 per hour), they often pay more than $1,500 per month in rent, which equals $18,000 per year. So, many actually pay more in rent than they earn. Then they have to figure out a way to pay for health care, child care, transportation, and yes, food. When Americans have expenses that are greater than their income, they must go without basic necessities.

I thought I was very persuasive, but I still don’t think I convinced him. Given that English was likely his third or fourth language, perhaps he didn’t precisely understand what I was saying. Perhaps concepts such as paying for child care didn’t resonate with him since few Malians pay others to care for their children. Moreover, I bet that -- all my caveats aside -- $11,000 a year sounded like a great deal of money to him.

Standing there in Africa, for the first time in my life I briefly had a hard time convincing even myself that hunger in the United States was something that I should seriously worry about given that things were obviously so much worse elsewhere. After all, I was forced to consider that, as bad as hunger is in America, U.S. children rarely starve to death anymore, while they still do in parts of the developing world.

But then I recalled all the people I had met throughout America who couldn’t afford to feed their families -- who had to ration food for their children, choose between food and rent, or go without medicine to be able to buy dinner -- and I reminded myself that, just because they weren’t quite dropping dead in the streets didn’t mean that their suffering wasn’t significant indeed. And then I further reminded myself that America was the nation of Bill Gates -- and more than 400 other billionaires, not to mention more than 7 million millionaires -- so it was particularly egregious that my homeland allowed millions of children to suffer from stunted growth due to poor nutrition. I thus came back to the same conclusion I reach every day: while hunger anywhere on the planet is horrid and preventable, having it in America is truly unforgivable.

It is not surprising that it is often difficult to convince average Americans that there is a serious hunger problem in the United States. Our nation tends to think of hunger as a distant, overseas, Third World problem. Our collective mental images of hunger are usually of African children with protruding ribs and bloated bellies -- surrounded by flies and Angelina Jolie -- sitting in parched, cracked dirt. When I try to explain U.S. hunger to Americans, some automatically assume I am inflating the extent of the problem. They simply don’t see it in their daily living. They know that America is the richest and most agriculturally abundant nation in the history of the world. They can’t believe that a place with so much obesity can have hunger. And besides, they assume that I am exaggerating because I am an advocate, and it is my job to exaggerate.

35.5 Million … and Counting

When people look at the facts for themselves, they discover the shocking reality: hunger amidst a sea of plenty is a phenomenon as American as baseball, jazz and apple pie. Today in the United States -- because tends of millions of people live below the meager federal poverty line and because tens of millions of others hover just above it -- 35.5 million Americans, including 12.6 million children, live in a condition described by the government as "food insecurity." Which means their households either suffer from hunger or struggle at the brink of hunger.

Primarily because federal anti-hunger safety net programs have worked, American children are no longer dying in significant numbers as an immediate result of faminelike conditions -- although children did die of malnutrition here as recently as the late 1960s. Still, despite living in a nation with so many luxury homes that the term "McMansion" has come into popular usage, millions of American adults and children have such little ability to afford food that they do go hungry at different points throughout the year -- and are otherwise forced to spend money on food that should have been spend on other necessities like heat, health care or proper child care.

Most alarmingly, the problem has only gotten worse in recent years. The 35.5 million food-insecure Americans encompass a number roughly equal to the population of California. That figure represents a more than 4 million-person increase since 1999. The number of children who live in such households also increased during that time, rising by more than half a million children. The number of adults and children who suffered from the most severe lack of food -- what the Bush administration now calls "very low food security" and what used to be called "hunger" -- also increased in that period from 7.7 million to 11.1 million people -- a 44 percent increase in just seven years.

While once confined to our poor inner cities (such as Watts, Harlem, Southeast D.C., the Chicago South Side, and the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans) and isolated rural areas (such as Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, Indian reservations and the Texas/Mexico border region), hunger -- and the poverty that causes it -- has now spread so broadly that it is a significant and increasing problem in suburbs throughout the nation.

Meanwhile, just as more people need more food from pantries and kitchens, these charities have less to give. Since the government and private funding that they receive is usually fixed, when food prices increase, charities are forced to buy less. When those fixed amounts from government actually decrease (as they have in recent years), the situation goes from bad to worse.

In May 2008, America’s Second Harvest Food Bank Network -- the nation’s dominant food bank network (which, in late 2008, changed its name to Feeding America) -- reported that 100 percent of their member agencies served more clients than in the previous year, with the overall increases estimated to be 15 to 20 percent. Fully 84 percent of food banks were unable to meet the growing demand due to a combination of three factors: increasing number of clients; decreasing government aid; and soaring food prices.

The number of "emergency feeding programs" in America -- consisting mostly of food pantries (which generally provide free bags of canned and boxed groceries for people to take home) and soup kitchens (which usually provide hot, prepared food for people to eat on site) -- has soared past 40,000. As of 2005, a minimum of 24 million Americans depended on food from such agencies. Yet, given that more than 35 million Americans were food insecure, this statistic meant that about 11 million -- roughly a third of those without enough food -- didn’t receive any help from charities.

We live in a new gilded age. Inequality of wealth is spiraling to record heights, and the wealthiest are routinely paying as much as $1,500 for a case of champagne -- equal to five weeks of full-time work for someone earning the minimum wage. While welfare reform is still moving some families to economic self-sufficiency, families being kicked off the rolls are increasingly ending up on the street. Homelessness is spiking. Poverty is skyrocketing. And the middle class is disappearing.

Meanwhile, soaring food prices have made it even more difficult for families to manage. Food costs rose 4 percent in 2007, compared with an average 2.5 percent annual rise for the 1990-2006 period, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For key staples, the hikes were even worse: milk prices rose 7 percent in 2007, and egg prices rose by a whopping 29 percent.

It was even tougher for folks who wanted to eat nutritiously. A study in the Seattle area found that the most nutritious types of foods (fresh vegetables, whole grains, fish and lean meats) experienced a 20 percent price hike, compared to 5 percent for food in general. The USDA predicted that 2008 would be worse still, with an overall food price rise that could reach 5 percent, and with prices for cereal and bakery products projected to increase as much as 8.5 percent.

As author Loretta Schwartz-Nobel has chronicled in her 2002 book, Growing Up Empty: The Hunger Epidemic in America, the nation’s hunger problem manifests itself in some truly startling ways. Even our armed forces often don’t pay enough to support the food needs of military families. Schwartz-Nobel describes a charitable food distribution agency aimed solely at the people who live on a Marine base in Virginia and includes this quote from a Marine: "The way the Marine Corps made it sound, they were going to help take care of us, they made me think we’d have everything we needed. … They never said you’ll get no food allowance for your family. They never said you’ll need food stamps … and you still won’t have enough." Schwatz-Nobel also quoted a Cambodian refugee in the Midwest: "My children are hungry. Often we are as hungry in America as I was in the (refugee) camps."

America’s Dirty Secret Comes Out of Hiding

From 1970 to 2005, the mass media ignored hunger. But due to the surge of intense (albeit brief) media coverage of poverty in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and subsequent reporting of food bank shortages and the impact of increasing food prices on the poor, the American public has been slowly waking to the fact that hunger and poverty are serious, growing problems domestically. Plus, more and more Americans suffer from hunger, have friends or relatives struggling with the problem, or volunteer at feeding charities where they see the problem for themselves.

Harmful myths about poverty are also starting to be discredited. While Americans have often envisioned people in poverty as lazy, healthy adults who just don’t want to work, 72 percent of the nation’s able-bodied adults living in poverty reported to the Census Bureau in 2006 that they had at least one job, and 88 percent of the households on food stamps contained either a child, an elderly person or a disabled person. It is harder and harder to make the case that the trouble is laziness and irresponsibility. The real trouble is the inability of many working people to support their families on meager salaries and the inability of others to find steady, full-time work.

Fundamentally a Political Problem

As far as domestic issues go, hunger is a no-brainer. Every human being needs to eat. Hunger is an issues that is universally understandable. And everyone is against hunger in America. Actually, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in America who says they’re for hunger.

Unlike other major issues such as abortion, gun control and gay marriage -- over which the country is bitterly divided based on deeply held values -- Americans of all ideologies and religions are remarkably united in their core belief that, in a nation as prosperous as America, it is unacceptable to have people going hungry.

Even ultraconservative President Ronald Reagan, after being embarrassed when his top aide Edwin Meese suggested that there was not really hunger in America and that people were going to soup kitchens just so they could get a "free lunch," was quickly forced to issue a memo stating his abhorrence of domestic hunger and his intention to end it. Since then, Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush -- and high-profile members of the Senate and the House -- have all given speeches laced with ringing denunciations of domestic hunger. Even right-wing think tanks -- which often minimize the extent of hunger or say that hunger is the fault of hungry people -- claim they want to end any hunger that may exist.

So why haven’t we ended this simple problem? One word: politics.

If we were to put the American political system on trial for its failures, hunger would be "Exhibit A." Domestic hunger is not a unique problem; it is actually emblematic of our society’s broader problems. The most characteristic features of modern American politics -- entrenched ideological divisions, the deceptive use of statistics, the dominance of big money, the passivity and vacuity of the media, the undue influence of interest groups and empty partisan posturing -- all work in tandem to prevent us from ending domestic hunger.

If we can’t solve a problem as basic as domestic hunger -- over which there is so much theoretical consensus -- no wonder we can’t solve any of our more complicated issues such as immigration and the lack of affordable health care. In 1969, reaching a similar conclusion, Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, put it this way:

Hunger is unique as a public issue because it exerts a special claim on the conscience of the American people. … Somehow, we Americans are able to look past slum housing … and the chronic unemployment of our poor. But the knowledge that human beings, especially little children, are suffering from hunger profoundly disturbs the American conscience. … 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. If we can’t solve the problem of hunger in our society, one wonders if we can resolve any of the great social issues before the nation.

It is not surprising that liberal McGovern would make such a statement, but it is a bit shocking that Republican Nixon -- McGovern’s opponent in the 1972 presidential election -- made similar statements during his presidency, after having denied that hunger was a serious problem. The reason Nixon finally acknowledge domestic hunger -- and ultimately took serious action to rescue it -- was that he was forced to do so by a combination of grassroots citizen agitation and concentrated national media attention on the issue.

In more recent decades, we’ve gone backward, and our modern elected officials deserve most of the blame. While, in the 1970s, the newly instituted federal nutrition safety net that Nixon and McGovern helped create ended starvation conditions and almost eliminated food insecurity altogether, in the early 1980s, Reagan and a compliant Democratic Congress slashed federal nutrition assistance and other antipoverty programs. Reagan also began the multi-decade process of selling the nation on the false notion that the voluntary and uncoordinated private charity could somehow make up for a large-scale downsizing in previously mandatory government assistance. Predictably, hunger again rose.

Both Bush administrations and the Newt Gingrich Congress enacted policies that worsened America’s hunger problem. But when a somewhat more aggressive Democratic congress took over in 2007, Congress slightly raised the minimum wage and added a bit more money for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children -- better known as the WIC food program -- and, in 2008, they somewhat increased food stamp benefits. Certainly, small advances under Democratic leadership were much better than the consistent setbacks under the Republicans. But even liberal Democratic leaders have proved unlikely to propose bolder efforts because they worry that such a focus might turn off middle-class "swing voters," and because big-money donors -- who now control the Democratic Party nearly as much as they control the Republican Party -- have different priorities.

Even when elected officials of both parties do want to substantively address hunger and poverty, they usually get bogged down in all-but-meaningless ideological debates, rhetorical excesses and score-settling partisan antics. Certainly, it’s not just elected officials who are to blame. Many religious denominations that denounce hunger also teach their congregations (consciously or unconsciously) that hunger is an inevitable part of both human history and God’s will. While it should be ameliorated with charitable acts, they sadly teach, it can’t really be eliminated. Businesses that donate food to charities often oppose increases in the minimum wage and other government policies that would decrease people’s need for such donated food. The news media, funded by ads from businesses and politicians, rarely point out these discrepancies and focus instead on cheerleading for superficial, holiday-time charitable efforts.

But most harmfully, Americans all over the country have been tricked into thinking that these problems can’t be solved and that the best we can hope for is for private charities to make the suffering marginally less severe. America can end hunger. By implementing a bold new political and policy agenda to empower low-income Americans and achieve fundamental change based upon mainstream values, America can end hunger quickly and cost-effectively. That achievement would concretely improve tens of millions of lives, and, in the process, provide a blueprint for fixing the broader problems of our entire, bilge-ridden political system.

Outside the Taylor Grocery and Restaurant (which serves the world’s best grilled catfish) in Taylor, Miss., is a sign that says, "Eat or We Both Starve." Not only is that slogan a good way to sell catfish, it is a great way to sum up why our collective self-interest should compel us to end domestic hunger.

No society in the history of the world has sustained itself in the long run with as much inequality of wealth as exists in America. Growing hunger and poverty, if left unchecked, will eventually threaten the long-term food security, finances and social stability of all Americans, even the ones who are currently middle class or wealthy. At the dawn of a new presidency, as the nation clamors for change and a new direction, hunger is a problem too simple and too devastating to ignore.

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