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Can’t Lead Abroad While Losing at Home
by Roger Thurow
In 2003, while reporting in the famine fields of Africa, I met an American aid worker who suggested I expand my research on global hunger: “You should look into hunger in America, too,” she suggested.
I moved back to the U.S. in 2005, based in Chicago for The Wall Street Journal. Not far from our bureau was the headquarters of America’s Second Harvest, the nation’s food banking network. It was one of my first reporting stops.
Second Harvest (now called Feeding America) was finishing up a report on hunger in America. Its findings, compiled from surveys with its member food banks, were shocking even for veterans of the domestic hunger battle: More than 25 million Americans were dependent on food banks and soup kitchens in 2005, including more than 9 million children.
Four years later, the depth of hunger in America has dramatically worsened, according to the newest survey.
Feeding America, through its network of food banks and the agencies they serve, is now providing emergency food assistance to 37 million people each year, including nearly 14 million children. That’s a whopping 46% increase over four years ago. It means that one in eight Americans receives food assistance from the nation’s charitable food distribution system at some time during the year.
The survey provides anecdotal backing to the report of the U.S. Department of Agriculture late last year that estimated that 49 million Americans, or 16% of the population, lived in food insecure households in 2008, meaning that they couldn’t afford enough food at some time during the year. That included 16.7 million children. Read together, these sets of numbers indicate that not even the extensive food bank network is reaching all the hungry in the U.S.
These findings also mirror the global reality of rapidly rising hunger. In the past 18 months, since the food crisis of 2008 exploded with soaring prices and shrinking surpluses, the roll call of the world’s hungry swelled from about 850 million to more than 1 billion.
Attacking global hunger through agriculture development, particularly in Africa, has become a top foreign policy priority of the Obama administration. But winning that fight requires conquering hunger domestically as well.
For you can’t be a leader in the global war on hunger while losing the battle at home.
At the moment, we’re losing ground on both fronts. The community of nations kicked off the new millennium pledging to cut global hunger in half by 2015. And President Obama came into office last year determined to end childhood hunger in America also by 2015.
Alas, those two goals have become more distant. We’re marching in reverse at home and abroad.
The nature of hunger in Africa and America is vastly different. Most of the hunger in the developing world is a chronic everyday grind that leads to 25,000 deaths a day. In most cases, there simply isn’t enough food available to eat. Starving children, if they survive, are forever stunted mentally and physically.
In America, hunger is measured by an inability to afford the next meal sometime during the year. In America, few go totally without; the wide network of food pantries and soup kitchens enables many people in times of economic trouble to cut back on food in order to pay for housing, heating and medical treatment. Feeding America distributes more than 2.6 billion pounds of food and grocery products to 61,000 agencies nationwide every year. Many family budgets allow only the purchase of the cheapest, high-calorie/low nutrition food, which is why so many bodies are both obese and malnourished at the same time.
While the hunger is different, the solutions are similar: increasing incomes of the poorest. To conquer the chronic hunger in Africa, that means elevating the productivity of small farmers. The emphasis needs to be on food production with proper nutrition rather than food distribution, helping farmers feed their families (and growing surpluses to sell on the markets) rather than relying on food aid. Reversing years of neglect of agriculture development and creating the conditions for African farmers to grow as much food as possible is the aim of the President’s Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative, which the administration now calls Feeding the Future. The president’s 2011 budget calls for $1.8 billion for this program; it is part of his commitment of at least $3.5 billion over three years, which, in turn, is part of a larger $20 billion-plus pledge from the world’s richest countries to boost agriculture development. The targeted African countries will also be making their own substantial financial commitments to agriculture.
In the U.S., a land of plenty, availability of food is sometimes trumped by affordability. Feeding America notes that growing unemployment has been the main reason for the 46% jump in the number of people it is serving. Its survey showed that about two-thirds of the households it serves are without work, and even those with jobs sometimes don’t make enough to assure a reliable supply of food. Nearly 80% of the households served had annual incomes below the federal poverty level.
With these dire findings in hand, Feeding America is urging Congress to authorize the administration’s plans to increase investment in government child nutrition programs. It is also calling for a doubling of USDA’s $250 million annual budget for buying surplus commodities for emergency food assistance programs.
Coming up with the funding, and the political will, for America to lead the hunger fight abroad and at home shouldn’t be difficult. After all, Congress quickly conjured up $3 billion last year for its “cash for clunkers” program. If there’s money for broken down cars, surely there’s money for hungry people.
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.
For more information about hunger and food insecurity in America, please see Feeding America's "Hunger in America 2010" report, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "Household Food Security in the United States, 2008" report.
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