Christian Science Monitor, April 22, 2008: Food for America’s famished

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Americans are a generous sort but not as much in a weak economy with food prices climbing more than 5 percent a year. Donations to private food banks are off 9 by percent. A CNN poll finds nearly 1 in 3 people already cutting back on food. Hunger, once again, is rising in America.

Some food banks and pantries have closed their doors for lack of supplies and because of higher prices for such staples as macaroni and cheese (up 86 percent a carton). Inflation for some basics such as milk, eggs, and bread have risen by double digits over the past year.

Worldwide, food price inflation is being driven by government subsidies for corn ethanol, higher fuel costs to transport food, and more meat eaters who command more farmland for feed grain. And because food costs usually take up more of a poor family’s budget, higher prices usually force them to eat less. While the average American family spends about 7 percent of its income on food at home, those at or below the poverty line spend as much as one-third.

Many poor nations have seen food riots and rising instability over “ag-flation” (see related opinion piece on Haiti). The food crisis in the United States has yet to explode into public view although it’s visible in longer lines at soup kitchens and other charities. “Our food bank members across the country have reported tremendous increases in the number of people seeking help to feed their families in the past several months,” says Vicki Escarra, head of America’s Second Harvest.

The Food Bank for New York City says the crisis is the worst in 25 years, with donations off by half. One reason is that more food is imported. Foreign producers are not as inclined to give to the needy as US companies do and don’t have a tax incentive to do so.

And the federal government’s donations of food to these groups is down more than 75 percent in the past four years as it is buying less surplus food from farmers.

Beyond receiving private food charity, more of America’s poor are enrolling for government food stamps. A record 28 million are expected to receive benefits in the next few months. Still, the program doesn’t quickly index benefits to food inflation, and doesn’t index certain eligibility requirements. This forces many recipients to absorb the rapid price hikes of recent months. That can mean cutting back on meals well before the end of the month and a drop in nutrition for poor children.

Fixes to the food stamp program as well as more federal donations to food banks are included in a major farm bill currently stalled in Congress. The political deadlock is over farmer subsidies, not the nutrition programs such as food stamps. And there’s a chance that lawmakers may simply extend all current programs for another year.

That would leave many more stomachs growling with hunger.

If Congress can’t soon pass a farm bill that President Bush will sign, then it should pass the nutrition programs separately. Tying such food assistance to farmer subsidies may help create a coalition between rural and urban lawmakers, but such linkage shouldn’t come at the expense of the poor.

More than 1 in 10 Americans live with what the Census Bureau calls “food insecurity” they’re forced to skip meals. Now is not the time for other Americans to skip out on their usual generosity.

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