As economic crisis worsens hunger stalks the land

A report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture reveals that hunger skyrocketed across America in 2007 after the nation plunged into its current deep recession in the first month of that year. An additional 2 million recipients have been added to Food Stamp rolls between January and August of this year, proof that the hunger crisis has deepened dramatically during the recession.

The annual USDA report, usually released in October, was postponed until after the Nov. 4 election prompting angry charges that the Bush administration was trying to help Republicans facing voter rage over soaring hunger and poverty. There was also fury that the Bush administration dropped use of the word “hunger” in the report arguing that it is not a “scientific” term. They substituted the phrase “food insecurity.”

The report found that “food insecurity” for children rose by over 60 percent to 691,000 youngsters last year. The number of “food insecure” senior citizens living alone soared 26 percent to 783,000 last year.

“Even before the current economic downturn, some 13 million households containing 36.2 million people lacked access to adequate food at some point in 2007 because they didn’t have enough money for groceries,” said Stacy Dean, director of food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Hunger is the product of low income and poverty so the long term solution is to give people jobs or benefits that provide an adequate income,” explained a food policy specialist at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“In the short term,” the specialist said, “we need an increase in food stamps as part of any economic recovery plan and increased funding for other government nutrition programs.” Increased funding for food stamps, the specialist said, “is a very effective way of putting more money into the economy. Money given to low income people in the form of food stamps is spent very quickly by people who have a high need. It also frees up money so they can make other purchases. We expect both the House and Senate in the 111th Congress to move quickly on it.”

The report found hunger most severe in Mississippi, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas and Maine.

But Joseph Quattrocchi, executive director of Pennsylvania Hunger Action, told the World the hunger crisis is nationwide with no state spared, including his own. “Unfortunately, I would say Pennsylvania is similar to the situation across the country: more people in need, more people being laid off, and food costs going up. There is a constant uptick in the number of people applying for food stamps. And there is increased stress on our emergency food pantries. They cannot make ends meet with the increased demand for food and dwindling donations.”

Pennsylvania was the first state to establish a state-funded program to purchase food to help supply emergency food banks. “The state allocated $18 million in the most recent year. On the one hand, we’re very proud that Pennsylania did that. On the other hand, its not nearly enough to meet the need.” The federal government must step in with a massive infusion of funds to help feed the hungry, he said. “Food is a basic human right,” he said. “People should not have to fight for food.”

A report by Center on Budget and Policy Priorities titled “States in Trouble Due to Economic Downturn” shows that 41 states face severe budget shortfalls that make it difficult or impossible to cope with the hunger crisis on their own. Twenty-one of the hardest hit states together have a projected shortfall totaling $40 billion through Fiscal Year 2010, forcing massive cutbacks and layoffs including in programs to assist poor and hungry people.

Reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act is among the first items on the agenda when the 111th Congress opens in January, he said. “Reauthorizing these child nutrition programs speaks to all childhood hunger,” he added, listing the school lunch and school Breakfast programs, the summer food program and the children and adult community food programs — all basic entitlement programs — as well as Women, Infants and Children (WIC), a program that provides food for pregnant and lactating women and for children. All these programs should be fully funded, he said.

Quatrocchi emphasized the link between hunger and low achievement in the nation’s public schools. “Hungry children cannot learn,” he said. “A growling belly means low performance in the classroom. We need to make sure that all children are well-fed if we are looking to strengthen our nation. President-elect Obama is already on record to eliminate child hunger in the next 15 years. It’s a hard order to fill but hopefully we will achieve it.”

He pointed out the paradox of a nation with an epidemic of obesity and hunger at the same time. “These are people with limited resources that precludes higher priced fresh meat, dairy and vegetables,” he said. “Parents choose foods with the highest caloric values to fill their kids’ stomaches.” The food stamp and other federal nutrition programs help promote a healthy diet as well, he said.