Most of our response to hunger in America is wrong. The programs and policies we employ are, by and large, misdirected, misguided and missing the mark entirely. That shameful fact is the result of one simple problem: When we ask the wrong question, the answer is inevitably wrong, too.
The question we ask routinely is “How do we manage hunger in America?”
The answer is a hodgepodge of responses that consistently leaves millions of Americans – one in seven of us – hungry. 48 million Americans will struggle to put enough food on the table. 15.3 million children won’t get the nutrition they need; 17% of rural households will go hungry. 5.4 million American seniors will have to choose between food and medication. Even active duty military families struggle with hunger.
The question we need to ask and answer, not routinely but once and for all, is, “How do we end hunger in the United States?”
That we even have to pose the question is shameful, given our nation’s bounty. But pose it we must, because decades of eroding government programs, a futile over-reliance on charity and, lately, a palpable measure of contempt for those in need have left us with answers that border on insanity.
The erosion of government hunger support is as varied as it is short sighted. Complaints about the expense of meeting the “high” standards for our school nutrition program (providing more nutritious choices, less salt and sugar) prompt calls to reduce standards, not to allocate greater resources. The presence of food pantries on or near military bases across the nation is shameful and embarrassing. Legislators cut everything from kids’ meals to food stamps, relying on non-profit organizations to fill the gaps. These valiant anti-hunger organizations scramble every day to meet the growing need in their communities. Despite their commitment, they have the capacity to feed only a tiny fraction of those who are hungry. We will never food bank our way out of hunger.
Misguided ideas like the one recently put forward by well meaning environmentalists – that we give hungry people our leftovers as part of a sustainability effort – are a symbol of how far off course we’ve gotten when it comes to ending hunger in America. What will sustain us is a well-fed country, not dregs for the poor.
From the War on Poverty in the 1960s through the Nixon Administration’s forceful push to end hunger, we almost did what no other country has ever done – end hunger. We built a strong response from the federal government coupled with smart management that effectively and dramatically reduced the number of hungry Americans and the data proves it. Subsequent administrations and Congresses cut back significantly on these programs in the name of savings and rendered this noble effort short lived, replaced by a steady erosion of the safety net.
Perversely, the result of such vigorous “cost cutting” is that we all pay more. As hunger seeps into every corner of the US, the damage and destruction is felt every day. In the name of saving a pittance on nutrition, school kids go hungry and educational advances are lost to them. When we fail to provide nutritional support, workers’ productivity falters, costing us millions in profits. Saving money on nourishing active duty military and their families leaves us with a force less fit and less capable.
Most importantly, when we scrimp and save on nutritional support today, we guarantee that we’ll pay billions in health care costs tomorrow as we are forced to treat the long-term consequences of poor nutrition – obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression and more.
We must stop asking how we can manage hunger in America and start figuring out how to end it. We already know some of the answers. A robust Federal nutritional program that reaches those in need efficiently can and must be our cornerstone.
Above all, we all need to advocate forcefully for change.
Those who govern must be reminded that hunger is a bi-partisan issue. Elected officials at every level have to be reminded that hunger exists in their communities and is their responsibility. Congress must accept that decades of experience have proved that turning to food banks, soup kitchens and church pantries produces no progress at all; the nonprofits on the front lines of hunger in America can help teach this lesson aggressively.
It is time to stop asking how the richest nation in the world can make 48 million people a little less hungry. Our democratic principles, our rich religious heritage and our own uniquely American commitment to justice must guide us to meaningful change. It is time to ask how to end hunger once and for all and it is time to start demanding that we do just that.