Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger

22 posts from February 2010

Campuses Talk Hunger

Today marks the start of “Mobilizing to Feed a Hungry World,” the annual University Hunger Summit in Auburn, Alabama. Over the weekend, students, faculty, and administrators from universities around the country will hear from experts about efforts to solve world hunger.

Auburn University launched the summit five years ago as a way to mobilize campuses in the fight against hunger. Tony Hall, executive director of The Alliance to End Hunger, founded by Bread in 2004, will be a featured speaker. Gregory Sims, Bread’s southeast regional organizer, and Elaine Van Cleave, Bread’s presiding volunteer district organizer for Birmingham, AL, also will talk to the group about influencing public policy, as well as Bread’s 2010 domestic agenda.

The summit is part of a larger movement called Universities Fighting World Hunger, which began in 2004 as a partnership between the United Nations World Food Program and Auburn University. Now more than 100 universities and colleges are involved, and the hope is to reach even more campuses with the message that, while the issues seem overwhelming, we can make a difference by working together.

As participants listen and learn from each other, Hall says, “I hope they remember two things: ‘Do the thing that is in front of you,’ and ‘you are not alone.’”

Hunger in the News

Today's top headlines:

Green Revolution in India Wilts as Subsidies Backfire.
In the 1970s, India dramatically increased food production, finally allowing this giant country to feed itself. But government efforts to continue that miracle have backfired. [The Wall Street Journal]

Commission Starts Preparing Plans for Haiti's Rebirth. Here on the hills above Port-au-Prince, a vision for a very different capital city is taking shape. [The Washington Post]

Latin American, Caribbean Countries Create a New Regional Group. The group brings Cuba into the fold but excludes Canada and the United States. [The New York Times]

A Superb Fix for Our Housing Crisis -- Courtesy of FDR. The government response to the financial crisis has been a spectacular success for the financial industry ... in sharp contrast to the millions still trapped in mortgages that they cannot afford. [The New Republic]

Majoring in Debt: Average Grad Owes $23,000. It used to be that many college students finished school with little or no debt. [Huffington Post]

Wall Street Profits Could Hit 'Unprecedented' Level. Wall Street bonuses were up 17 percent to over $20 billion in 2009, the year taxpayers bailed out the financial sector after its meltdown. [Huffington Post]

Nearly 20% of U.S. Workers Underemployed. Gallup estimated that about 30 million Americans are underemployed, meaning either jobless or able to find only part-time work. [Reuters]

WellPoint Raising Premium Rates by Double Digits in at Least 11 States. If Democrats move to pass health care reform after tomorrow’s summit, their newfound momentum can be at least partly attributed to WellPoint’s decision to drastically increase premiums in California’s individual health insurance market. [Think Progress]

Climate Change/Environment
Suggested Emission Cuts Fall Short. Emission cuts pledges made by 60 countries will not be enough to keep the average global temperature rise at 2 degrees Celsius or less. [AlertNet]

U.N.: Extra Climate Change Conference in Germany. The United Nations will hold an extra round of climate change talks in Bonn, Germany, between April 9 and 11. [The Wall Street Journal]

Hunger and Poverty among African Americans

Take a look at these startling facts:

*One in four African Americans lives below the poverty line, compared to about one in eight Americans overall.

*Thirty-four percent of African-American children live in families that struggle to put food on the table.

Bread for the World Institute’s new report, “Hunger by the Numbers among African Americans,” examines data on hunger and poverty rates among African Americans living in major metropolitan areas. The numbers are sobering, particularly for children.

“It would hardly be an overstatement to say an entire generation of African-American children is at risk of being set back due to the current recession,” Bishop Don Williams, Bread for the World's racial/ethnic outreach associate, told journalists at a press briefing today.

The Institute's analysis shows that 90 percent of African-American children will receive SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits before they turn 20, compared to 49 percent of all U.S. children.

Check here for more analysis, including stories of groups and organizations that are making a difference. One is The Harlem Children’s Zone, which serves more than 8,000 children and their families in New York through education, social service, and community-building programs.

Secretary Vilsack Urges Congress to Improve Child Nutrition

Millions of kids in the United States live in households that don’t have enough food. And without national school lunch and breakfast programs, many would receive even fewer meals.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke today in Washington, DC, about the importance of protecting and strengthening programs that reduce hunger and improve nutrition for U.S. children.

“You might be shocked to learn that in 2008, 16.7 million American children lived in households that had difficulty putting enough food on the table,” he told a gathering at the National Press Club. “And in over 500,000 households, children skipped meals or ate less than they needed because of a lack of resources.”

Vilsack urged Congress to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act, which would include improving nutrition standards for school meals; making it easier for more kids to access meal programs; serving healthier foods; increasing physical activity in schools; and teaching kids and parents about more nutritious foods.

Bread strongly supports the reauthorization bill -- check here for information about Bread’s work to end childhood hunger, including how you can help make sure these programs are reauthorized.

While food assistance is vital, however, it isn’t enough. Progress against hunger requires broader economic efforts to reduce poverty. That’s why Bread’s 2010 Offering of Letters focuses on protecting and strengthening tax credits that help low-income families put food on the table. Find out more here.

Beckmann: Make Foreign Aid Work

Bread President David Beckmann appeared Sunday on PBS's Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly to talk about foreign aid and why it needs to be administered more effectively. Read the full interview or check out these highlights:

On the fight against hunger
There has been dramatic progress against hunger, poverty, and disease in the world. In 1970, probably about one-third of the people in developing countries were hungry and undernourished. That’s now down to about one-fifth. The big story is the religious story. I think God is moving in our time to reduce hunger, poverty, and disease, and part of that story is assistance from the rich countries.

The ‘3 D’s’
The D’s are defense, diplomacy and development -- the three legs of our foreign policy. But the defense leg is real long, the diplomacy leg is kind of stubby, and the development leg is tiny. Both President Bush and President Obama were clear that development -- helping people around the world make a better life for themselves – is the right thing to do but also in the long-term contributes to our diplomacy and our defense.

There are three big agencies that administer U.S. development assistance. There are 60 offices of government that have foreign assistance programs. … We just have a clutter of U.S. agencies trying to do the job. We need one strong agency responsible for development, related to the State Department, and then we also need better coordination across the 60 offices.

On effective aid
When aid is focused on reducing poverty or promoting development, it has a pretty good record of success. The main problem has been our mixed motives. Lots of times we think the same dollar is going to buy an Air Force base and help poor people...

Right now we are putting a lot of development money toward aid in Afghanistan, but … at the end of the day, the purpose of that money is not to help poor people. The primary reason is to fight terrorism. [Defense] Secretary Gates … wants strong civilian agencies to be able to carry out our development assistance programs so that our military can focus on what they do. They don’t do a good job reducing poverty.

The need for reform
Our foreign assistance … does a lot of good, but we can get a lot more impact out of those tax dollars. It’s not just the aid; it’s the coordination of aid with trade and diplomatic policies. For example, we charge Bangladesh more in tariffs for the things they import into the United States than we give them in aid, so we are taking with one hand what we give with the other.

For every dollar we appropriate for food aid, more than 50 cents goes to transportation and administration. With the high price of oil now, to ship food from Iowa or Kansas to Ethiopia is a very expensive proposition. Often the best way to get food in a place where you need food aid, a refugee camp, is to find food locally or in a nearby country. Buy the food from farmers there.

But we end up shipping food produced here. It’s partly because there is a small group of shipping companies that are U.S.-flagged companies, and the law says they get to ship that food. They aren’t efficient companies, but they are well-positioned to lobby Congress. It’s a scandal. If they were just taking 20 percent I could live with it, but now it’s gone to more than 50 percent of the cost of food aid. Bread is campaigning to get that system changed.

On trade
Bread has worked on trade policies toward Africa and Haiti to try to open up opportunities for poor countries to export into the United States. It’s good business for the United States. Usually trade and investment tends to benefit better-off people first. So if you really are trying to lift the least of these, you often need some aid money to complement it. Really poor countries have managed to achieve rapid economic growth, partly through aid, partly through trade opportunities. In fact, places like India, China, Korea, Indonesia -- these are places I want to put some of my 401(k) money.

The future
The amount of money we are spending on programs helping to reduce poverty in developing countries has tripled between 2000 and 2010. The experience of 9/11 made us aware that we are interconnected, and it’s not smart to neglect misery in far-off places. I’m very encouraged that the United States is more committed to reducing poverty now, and if you talk to voters, they want to do more. We have changed U.S. politics for the better on this issue, and I expect further change.

Hunger in the News

A look at today's top headlines:

Food Crisis Looms in Rural Haiti. "This is a hidden but pervasive crisis that has already touched all corners of the country,” said Dick Trenchard, Assessments Coordinator for FAO in Haiti. “Rural areas experiencing the highest levels of displacement from Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas are the most affected, particularly the Artibonite in the west and Grand’Anse in the south.” [AlertNet]

"Women's Decade": Greater Attention to Implementation. According to UNIFEM's 2008 Progress of the World's Women report, government budgets are the largest single source of financing for gender equality and women's empowerment in most countries. [Inter Press Service News Agency]

Aid 'Shortfall' to Poorer Nations. Aid to developing countries from richer nations will fail to hit aid targets set five years ago at the Gleneagles summit, a study has suggested. [BBC]

Poverty in Childhood Can Shape Neurobiology: Study. Living in poverty can shape the neurobiology of a developing child "in powerful ways," affecting children's behavior, health and how well they do later in life. [AFP]

Obama's Health Care Proposal Lays Blueprint for Democratic Action. President Obama officially released his own health care reform proposal on Monday in a last-ditch effort to unite the Democratic Party around some sort of comprehensive legislation. [Huffington Post]

The Economy's Latest Victim: Breakfast. The nation's high unemployment rate has thrown millions of people out of work, scared shoppers away from stores and threatened the economic recovery. Now it's taking a bite out of breakfast. [The Washington Post]

The Future of Black History. If we want to make black history every month, we must do a better job educating the millions of impoverished black children in America. For many of them, school will be the only way out from under the federal poverty line. [Newsweek]

Climate Change/Environment
'Mountains' of E-Waste Threaten Developing World. Huge amounts of old computers and discarded electronic goods are piling up in countries such as China, India and some Africa nations. [BBC]

U.S. Aims for Legally Binding Climate Change Agreement in 2010. The U.S. said it wants to reach a legally binding climate-change agreement at a summit in Mexico in December, a sign President Barack Obama hasn’t given up the fight for a global accord to limit greenhouse gases. [BusinessWeek]

Obama Mounts a Last-Ditch Attempt to Pass a 'Hybrid' Climate and Energy Bill. The White House is mounting a last-ditch effort to piece together an energy and climate change bill that has enough incentives for nuclear power, natural gas and the coal industry to muster the votes needed to pass it this year. [The New York Times]

Beckmann on Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly Sunday

Bread’s David Beckmann will be featured again on PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly this Sunday, where he’ll be talking about the importance of foreign aid reform. 

To learn more about foreign aid and why it’s important that the United States deliver it more effectively, check out our reports “A Road to Self-Sufficiency: Better Foreign Assistance” and “The Right Development Assistance.”

This Sunday’s program airs in Washington, DC, at 10:30 a.m. (ET) and will be carried by most PBS affiliates. Check your local TV listings to find out when to tune in. If you can’t make it -- or the show doesn’t air in your market – you can watch it online by next Friday at 6 p.m. (ET).

Hunger in the News

A look at today’s top headlines:

Food crisis looms in rural Haiti. More than a month after the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti on 12 January, FAO and the international humanitarian organization CARE have issued a joint alert over a national food crisis. (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States)

Indian farmers go bananas for easy irrigation. With seven months of drought each year, Indian farmers are rarely far from disaster. Could the answer be as simple as a piece of plastic tubing? (BBC)

Haiti earthquake: U.N. seeks record donations. The United Nations has increased its humanitarian appeal for Haiti to $1.44 billion -- an all-time high. (BBC)

How a new jobless era will transform America. After nearly two brutal years, the Great Recession appears to be over, at least technically. Yet a return to normalcy seems far off. (The Atlantic)

Obama creates deficit taskforce. The body will report back by the end of the year on what steps need to be taken to get the deficit down to 3% of GDP. (BBC)

State pension plans face $1 trillion shortfall. States may be forced to reduce benefits, raise taxes or slash government services to address a $1 trillion funding shortfall in public sector retirement benefits, according to a new study. (Huffington Post)

Climate Change

U.N. climate chief submits his resignation. Yvo de Boer’s departure takes effect five months before 193 countries are due to reconvene in Mexico for another attempt at a global deal on climate. (BBC)

Global Weirding is Here. Of the festivals of nonsense that periodically overtake American politics, surely the silliest is the argument that because Washington is having a particularly snowy winter it proves that climate change is a hoax and, therefore, we need not bother with all this girly-man stuff like renewable energy, solar panels and carbon taxes. (The New York Times)

Canada's permafrost retreats amid warming trend. The permanently frozen ground known as permafrost is retreating northward in the area around Canada's James Bay, a sign of a decades-long regional warming trend. (AlterNet)

Beyond Haiti's Emergency

Haiti girl Before the calamitous earthquake, Haiti was in the news for another tremor: the global food crisis of 2008.

Shortages of rice and the resulting high prices had poor Haitians foraging through dumps and eating concoctions called “mud pies,” mixtures of grain and dirt. That misery prompted the masses to take to the streets in protest, which led to a government shake-up.

Now, as emergency food aid rushes into the country to relieve the misery of people dislocated from the earthquake, it is time to also deal with Haiti’s chronic hunger and malnutrition.

The clamor is rising that the phrase “building back better” also needs to include Haiti’s agriculture system. The United Nations issued a “flash,” or emergency, appeal for $575 million to help rebuild the country after the earthquake. Fortunately, the world has responded with a flood of money. But the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization says its part of the appeal -- $23 million to help revive Haiti’s food production -- is being largely ignored. Only 8% has been funded.

Reviving the agriculture sector is key to weaning the country off post-earthquake food aid. “The immediate priority is support for the farm season that begins in March and accounts for more than 60% of food production,” warns FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf.

Reviving the agriculture sector is key to weaning the country off post-earthquake food aid. “The immediate priority is support for the farm season that begins in March and accounts for more than 60% of food production,” warns FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf.

But seeds, fertilizers and tools to help Haitian farmers plant are largely absent from the emergency aid. “We are alarmed at the lack of support to the agricultural component,” Diouf says.

Lack of support to agriculture throughout the developing world has been a dire lament for the past three decades.

Haiti’s recent history illuminates an oft-overlooked reality of global hunger: the vast majority of today’s hungry are far from the crisis hotspots and the cameras that flock to them. Instead, their hunger is a chronic, everyday grind. For them, every day is a food emergency.

Haiti’s food crisis in 2008 was hastened by tropical storms that damaged its main agriculture area. But the longer-term drop in food production since the 1980s is less an act of God as it is an act of man. Namely, man’s flawed theories of economic development.

Haiti crowd In the era of cheap food that reigned for a couple of decades until the commodity price spikes in 2008, the theory of “comparative advantage” held that poor countries were better off buying their food from the U.S. and other big producers rather than growing it themselves. The peasant farmers of the poor countries could instead work in factories, like in the textile industry where those countries had a low-wage advantage; the money earned from the factory exports would then be used to buy food. If a hunger crisis arose, food aid would flow in; the world had plenty of excess grain.

The food crisis of 2008 exposed the folly of this theory. Higher prices, caused in one measure by dwindling global surpluses, meant those export earnings bought less food. And the higher prices also made food aid more expensive. Hunger spread. People rioted.

In June 2008, Joel Millman and I wrote in The Wall Street Journal:

 “For decades, poor nations were discouraged from investing too much in agriculture, which was seen as a problem rather than a solution to fighting poverty. Many free-market economists came to believe that the reason billions of people are poor is because they are shackled to subsistence farming. The economists’ solution: find something else for them in manufacturing, tourism or services so that they can make money to buy food instead of growing it.

“Poor countries were discouraged from growing much of their own staples, such as rice and wheat, that are usually grown more cheaply in rich countries. Instead, they were told to focus on export crops that might fetch a higher price.”

In Haiti, farmers had stopped growing rice and instead drifted to factories making things like underwear. Food production plummeted, but as long as prices remained low, the country could import what food it needed. Haitians who clamored for food self-sufficiency went unheeded. “In all my years that we asked for help, the answer was: No. Agriculture is not a tool for development,” former Haitian agriculture minister Philippe Mathieu told Millman amid the 2008 crisis.

Urged to redirect spending from local farming to areas like assembling underwear for export, Haiti’s governments rarely spent as much as 3% of the country’s annual economic output on food production.

As a result, much cheaper U.S. rice slowly displaced local rice. In the mid-1980s, the Artibonite River valley, known as Haiti’s rice bowl, produced more than 100,000 metric tons of rice. By 2003, the Artibonite was producing less than 80,000 metric tons of rice. Haiti became the world’s biggest importer of rice -- it imported about 400,000 tons in 2007 -- and the number four market for U.S. rice growers.

The food crisis prompted both donors and recipients of aid to rethink doctrines about the role of agriculture and whether poor nations should strive to feed their own people or rely on the world’s trading system to do so.

Haiti thus becomes another test of the Obama administration’s resolve to deploy its new doctrine: Feeding the Future, a global food security initiative that aims to reduce hunger and poverty through agriculture development.

“In Haiti, we have the chance to deliver something that the global community has long declared a priority: to transition from short-term interventions to addressing the underlying causes of hunger and poverty,” writes Cheryl Mills, counselor and chief of staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

As Haiti builds from the rubble of the earthquake, a new attack on hunger can rise from the rubble of disastrous development policies of the past couple of decades.

Please see recent Huffington Post articles on Haiti's ongoing humanitarian crisis by U.S. government officials Cheryl Mills, Counselor and Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Rajiv Shah, Administrator of USAID.

Roger Thurow’s blog post appears courtesy of the Global Food for Thought blog. Thurow, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent, is a senior fellow for Global Agriculture and Food Policy at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.


Wonks and Storytellers in Oregon

Last Friday I trekked down to Salem for a hearing on Oregon Senate bill 1044, which would expand Oregon's Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Like 23 other states, Oregon has a state EITC that complements the federal credit. 

Here's how Oregon's EITC works: Oregon matches 6 percent of the federal EITC. So, for example, if your family is eligible for a $1,000 federal credit, Oregon kicks in an extra $60. It's particularly important because in Oregon, the lowest-income fifth of families pays a higher share of income to state and local taxes than the richest fifth. The bill would help more than 200,000 people in Oregon close the gap between impossible choices among food, medicine, utilities, and rent.

Confession: I thought spending a Friday afternoon at a hearing about the tax policy might be boring. I was happily proven wrong.

More than 50 people crowded the hearing room, and more than a dozen people testified -- all in favor of the bill. Most represented organizations such as the Oregon Food Bank, the Oregon Center for Public Policy, and other groups that are part of the Oregonians for Working Families Coalition. Bread is a member of the coalition, along with nearly 100 other organizations.

It's always great to hear testimony from organizations that serve low-income people, but what struck me is how many people had a personal story to tell about how the EITC impacted their lives. 

Andrea Paluso from Family Forward Oregon told the story of her mother, who worked a full-time job, a part-time job, and went to college full-time (and had stomach ulcers to show for it). Andrea testified about how EITC gave her mom the opportunity to "exhale for one second." Father C. Paul Schroeder of Portland's Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral testified about how when he was at seminary, the EITC gave him a "real shot in the arm" at a financially challenging point in his life. He also noted how he may have been reticent to apply for other forms of public assistance, but because it was part of a tax form he was going to fill out anyway, it provided a level of dignity that other programs might not.

Former EITC recipient Ian Finch, along with Janet Byrd from Neighborhood Partnerships and Joy Margheim from the Oregon Center on Public Policy, testifies before an Oregon Senate Hearing on expanding Oregon's state EITC (Photo: Matt Newell-Ching, Bread for the World)Perhaps the most powerful testimony of the day belonged to Ian Finch -- a former recipient of EITC. Ian was raised in poverty by his single mother. He became a single father of five children and was determined to break the cycle of poverty. Here's an excerpt from his testimony:    

Because of the EITC I was able to purchase a minivan and car insurance for a year. I was now able to accomplish much more because I had my own vehicle. It was great not to have to wait out in the cold and rain for buses anymore. It also helped my children to be able to do more outside activities. By purchasing the minivan, I was able to free up about three hours of my day because I didn't have to wait for buses and MAX trains.

The EITC has benefited my family in so many ways. I was able to take my family on vacation for the first time in our lives. While we were at Disneyland, my oldest daughter summed it up really well. She said, "Dad, we are finally here! You have worked so hard to make this a dream come true!" That is all I needed to hear to know that all the hard work was worth it.

When he spoke of his daughter's epiphany, you could tell how moved the Senate panel was, and I confess I teared up a little myself. 

Ian happily noted that he now earns too much money to be eligible for EITC, and he is not alone. In fact, more than half of people who claim the EITC do so for only one or two years, and families that received EITC benefits from 1989-2006 generated more than $500 billion in net tax revenue during that period. 

Still, most states do not have an EITC to supplement the federal credit, which underscores the importance of this year's Offering of Letters campaign to help working families bridge the gap between food and other basic necessities by protecting and strengthening the federal EITC and Child Tax credits. Improvements to these credits passed during the Bush (43) and Obama administrations expire at the end of the year. If the improvements expire, it's estimated that 1.5 million people will fall back into poverty. 

Let's git 'er done...

Matt Newell-Ching is Western Regional Organizer for Bread for the World.

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