Spotlight Exclusives

Hunger a Problem in Every Pocket of America, By Jim Weill, President, Food Research and Action Center

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Over the last two years, tens of millions of Americans have seen their jobs disappear, their wages shrink, or their work hours cut. Affording enough food was a significant struggle for many before the recession and has become a struggle for millions more. But until now, we didn۪t have up-to-date or local data showing just how many Americans are struggling with hunger around the nation and in our communities.

A new report by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), “Food Hardship: A Closer Look at Hunger,” provides just such data on food hardshipthe inability to afford enough food. For the first time, up-to-date data are available for every state, as well as for all 436 congressional districts and for 100 of the country۪s largest Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs).

The findings are troubling: in 2009, close to one-fifth of this country۪s households didn۪t have enough money to buy needed food at some point in the prior year. And the problem was even more serious in households with children; close to 25 percent of these homes experienced such food hardship. In 82 of the 100 largest MSAs over 2008-2009, 15 percent or more of respondents answered that they did not have enough money to buy needed food at times in the last 12 months. Practically every congressional district in the country had more than a tenth of respondents reporting food hardship. Of the 436 congressional districts (including the District of Columbia), 311 had a food hardship rate of 15 percent or higher.

The report, which analyzes survey data that were collected by Gallup as part of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index project, is the first report based on a sample size large enough to analyze hunger data at the MSA- and congressional district-level. And no report before this has been able to look at food hardship data so close in time to publication.

Through the congressional district-level hunger data, members of Congress now have a detailed and timely picture of the challenges their constituents are facing. Many have realized that there is more food insecurity in their districts rural, suburban, and urban than they thought. This report is serving as a prod to Congress to strengthen nutrition programs and more effectively help their struggling constituents.

President Obama has called for an end to childhood hunger by 2015, a critical first step toward ending the unnecessary scourge of hunger in our still incredibly wealthy country. Earlier this year, FRAC laid out a multi-step anti-hunger plan to achieve the president۪s goal. These new food hardship data make the case that action is urgently needed. Among our recommendations on ways to end childhood hunger and hunger in general are the following:

  1. Keep focusing on restoring economic growth and assure that growth is shared through adequate wages and refundable tax credits, a higher minimum wage, and other supports for low-income workers.
  2. Improve Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by making benefits more adequate and expanding eligibility.
  3. Significantly strengthen child nutrition programs, including the school meal programs, child care food, summer and afterschool meals and snacks, and the Women, Infants and Children program, which are due to be renewed by Congress this year.
  4. Ensure all families have access to reasonably priced nutritious foods. This is an especially urgent need in the many areas in large cities and rural communities where good supermarkets often don۪t exist.
  5. Combine and streamline anti-hunger efforts among governments, the private sector, and nonprofit organizations at the local, state, and federal level.

Children need good nutrition to grow and learn today, and adult workers are more productive when they have access to enough food. Strengthening federal nutrition programs and increasing access to these programs will help our economy and help our struggling families. If all of us work together to make needed changes at the local, state, and federal level today, we can look forward to a hunger-free country tomorrow.

What needs to happen next is for people who care to get involved. Look at the food hardship data for your state, MSA, and congressional district, communicate them to policymakers, and ask them what they will do to address this problem among their constituents.

Jim Weill is the president of the Food Research and Action Center, a national nonprofit organization that works with hundreds of national, state, and local nonprofit organizations, public agencies, and corporations to address hunger and its root cause, poverty.

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