Developing strategies to end hunger

9 posts from November 2009

New Hope for Malnourished Mothers and Children

The Administration continues to refine its Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative. The announcement at the G8 and subsequent emphasis on agriculture and food security is exciting and a welcome return to investing in areas that are critical to help people escape from poverty.

Bread for the World is urging the administration to include nutrition as a core area of emphasis in the new Initiative. The initial consultation document includes a substantial focus on nutrition, but as with all first drafts, it needs refinement. A recent briefing paper from the Institute, New Hope for Malnourished Mothers and Children, outlines further recommendations for the new initiative. Our recommendations include:

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SNAP to attention, America

The New York Times has an article about the dramatic rise in the number of people enrolled in the Food Stamp Program. In fact, this is a misnomer the Times perpetuates. The nation’s flagship nutrition program is now named SNAP, i.e. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Several hundred words into the article, authors Jason DeParle and Robert Gebeloff explain the change had to due with the stigma associated with food stamps. Why then continue to perpetuate the food stamp brand by using the outdated name of the program instead of SNAP in the title of the article: "Food Stamp Use Soars, Stigma Fades"?

My concerns about the title aside, the article does a decent job of humanizing the problem of hunger in the United States. It includes some compelling stories. One of the people profiled is an electrician, whom I guess we could describe as the protagonist in the story, formerly too proud to seek help. Now, given his own troubles, he has had a change of heart about the people he used to think were just chiselers.

With most of his co-workers laid off, Greg Dawson, a third-generation electrician in rural Martinsville, considers himself lucky to still have a job. He works the night shift for a contracting firm, installing freezer lights in a chain of grocery stores. But when his overtime income vanished and his expenses went up, Mr. Dawson started skimping on meals to feed his wife and five children. 

He tried to fill up on cereal and eggs. He ate a lot of Spam. Then he went to work with a grumbling stomach to shine lights on food he could not afford. When an outreach worker appeared at his son’s Head Start program, Mr. Dawson gave in.

“It’s embarrassing,” said Mr. Dawson, 29, a taciturn man with a wispy goatee who is so uneasy about the monthly benefit of $300 that he has not told his parents. “I always thought it was people trying to milk the system. But we just felt like we really needed the help right now.”

For readers who want to pour over lots of data, the article includes, or at least the online version does, SNAP usage rates in every county of the country, broken down by several useful indicators, like race, children, and rates of program growth since the start of the recession.

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President Obama's Decision to go to Copenhagen

Ending weeks and months of speculation, this morning President Obama announced that he will attend the UN  Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen in December. This is a huge step and will add much needed political momentum. In the last few months, world leaders and climate negotiators have been lowering expectations for the conference. Hopes had been pinned on a legally binding agreement. When it became clear that that wasn't going to happen, hopes turned to the possibility of a political agreement. But without the United States and China committed to attend, just weeks ahead of the conference--even that looked impossible. This morning's announcement improves the possibility of a political agreement and that is good news for poor and hungry people.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon linked climate change and hunger earlier this month at the UN's World Food Summit, saying “There cannot be food security without climate security." He and many leaders and analysts recognize the need for a coherent policy and approach to the energy, food security and climate challenges. The difficult part is getting to an agreement--too many special interests stand in the way--the voices of poor people and poor countries, the ones most affected by climate change, get drowned out. In many developing countries, agricultural production will be devastated by climate change--this will wreak havoc on the availability of food and on the ability of the majority of poor people, who live in rural areas, to earn an income from farming.

In the last two years we have seen a substantial rise in hunger due to rising food prices. Unless we deal with climate change, reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and help poor countries adapt to changes already underway, we will face great uncertainty in the world's food supply, reduced economic opportunity for the world's poor people and the risk of larger numbers of people living in hunger. Considering that just about 1 in 6 people in the world is hungry--that is a risk world leaders should not be willing to take.

Addressing climate change should, in fact, be seen as an opportunity, a case we make in the 2010 Hunger Report, A Just and Sustainable Recovery. On this Thanksgiving eve, I hope that President Obama carries that message with him to Copenhagen

Despair and Hope in Detroit

One of the most breathtaking, and heartbreaking, facts I came across when researching education policy for the 2010 Hunger Report: A Just and Sustainable Recovery was the high school dropout rate in Detroit. Three-quarters of Detroit kids drop out of school.

Let me say that again, the high school graduation rate inside the city is just 25 percent. Probably nothing better than this conveys the despair and neglect of parts of America. 

We talk a lot about marginalized areas of the country in the 2010 Hunger Report, but Detroit sticks out in my mind right now because of something I just read about it. Bob Herbert, who has a column twice a week in the New York Times, has written recently about Detroit. Herbert is one of my favorite columnists writing for a major newspaper these days. Few others who occupy such important real estate on an Op-Ed page are willing to talk to (rather than just about) people struggling in low-wage jobs or marginalized neighborhoods like the ones Bread for the World Institute zeroed in on in the 2010 Hunger Report.

Herbert’s most recent piece about Detroit ran today. It was a sequel to another that ran on Saturday, a depressing view on the state of the city and how the recession that the rest of the country is feeling has been unraveling quietly in Detroit for decades.

Detroit and its environs are suffering the agonies of the economic damned because of policies, crafted at the highest national and corporate levels, that resulted in the implosion of crucially important components of America’s manufacturing base. Those decisions have had a profound effect on the fortunes not just of Detroit, or even Michigan, but the entire U.S. economy.

As we said in the Hunger Report, and Herbert discusses in this column, the manufacturing base is crucial to maintaining a healthy middle class. What happened to Detroit could at one time be seen as symptomatic of a self-destructive streak in U.S. industrial policy. The current recession is revealing how that streak now looks more like a fait accompli.

But in Herbert’s second article about Detroit, which he titles it Signs of Hope, despair gives way to something good that may be coming up for the city, as well as the country's battered industrial base. The focus of the article is Stan Ovshinksky. By no means a household name, Ovshinsky is someone we should hope to all hear more about if we believe restoring America’s industrial base is crucial to rebuilding our economy in ways that will keep it growing sustainably.

Mr. Ovshinsky knows as much or more about the development and production of alternative energy as anyone on the planet. He developed the technology and designed the production method that made it possible to produce solar material “by the mile.” When he proposed the idea years ago, based on the science of amorphous materials, which he invented, he was ridiculed. 

Over the weekend, a colleague of mine at Bread for the World Institute sent me an email about the first Herbert article, saying it echoes much of what we said in the 2010 Hunger Report, except it left out the clean energy sector we champion as the best hope for rebuilding America's industrial base. It was gratifying to see Herbert use today’s column to add hope to the despair that Detroit has come to stand for. There is indeed hope for America's industrial sector, but it will depend on forward thinking public policy to bring it to fruition. And it will not only require investments in clean energy, but also in education so that workers in Detroit will have the skills to take advantage of new manufacturing jobs.

2010 Hunger Report: A Just and Sustainable Recovery

Bread for the World Institute’s latest annual hunger report, its 20th edition of this esteemed report, appears today. A Just and Sustainable Recovery analyzes what needs to happen to reduce hunger and poverty as the U.S. and global economy recover from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  

A jobless recovery will not suffice and does not have to be what we get if policymakers grasp the opportunity to rebuild the economy in ways that put people at the forefront of policies to stimulate and sustain growth. 

The report highlights policies that can ensure a sustainable future in spite of the ups and downs that are inevitable in business cycles. It calls for new investments in the nation's energy infrastructure, as to create lots of jobs; rebuilding the manufacturing sector, also to create jobs but more importantly to get America producing things people want to buy, besides risky financial products; reducing inequalities in areas like housing, health care and education policy; helping low-income families to save and build assets for the future, just as the government does for middle and upper income families; and revitalizing neglected communities throughout the country, places so far on the margins they are effectively excluded from participating in the rest of the national economy, except for low-paying work in the service sector. This report has a big agenda, but we're at an opportune moment for making a fresh start and thinking big about the future.

The report also makes the case for U.S. leadership in reducing hunger and poverty around the world and in addressing climate change. Without addressing the triple threats of hunger, poverty, and climate change, the report argues, the coming decades augur far greater instability around the world. 

The release of the report coincides with a launch event at the National Press Club, including speakers David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World and Bread for the World Institute, Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Gawain Kripke, director of research and policy at Oxfam America, and Reverend Lennox Yearwood, president of the Hip Hop Caucus. The report’s website, including everything in the print edition plus many other features, will be adding video from the National Press Club event within a few days.

Here on Institute Notes we’ll be blogging regularly about the report, as issues discussed in the report, from hunger to climate change to health care reform and jobs and inequality, continue to be in the news everyday.  So check in and participate in the discussion with us if you like. 

It's Not All About Unemployment

There's definitely more information worth highlighting in the new government food security data released on Monday.

"Fifty-five percent of the food-insecure households surveyed in 2008 said that in the previous month they had participated in one or more of the three largest Federal food and nutrition programs--the National School Lunch Program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, the new name for the Food Stamp Program), and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

The thing is, why only 55 percent? Here's some other information:

Among households reporting food insecurity, 42.2 percent had incomes below the official poverty line.

Once again, I'd ask why only this much? Presumably, most food insecure households you'd think would be poor, right?

These two findings from the study, I think, set into focus something we have to think about if we want to get really serious about reducing hunger in this country. Plenty of people above the poverty line go hungry because they earn too much to qualify for nutrtion programs, but not enough to cover basic living expenses. So they scrimp on food, one of the most fungible items in any household's budget. 

Lots of people lost their job during the recession. Of course the number of people on food assistance skyrocketed. But for those people who didn't lose their jobs and whose income was between 100-200 percent of poverty (and higher in some high-costs areas of the country like New York City, San Francisco, Washington, DC), they continued to struggle, as they always struggle, because of exorbitant costs of living. Among people surveyed in the study with incomes between 100-130 percent of poverty and between 130-185 percent of poverty, food insecurity rates were 42.5 percent and 37.5 percent respectively.

The food insecurity numbers will decrease once people start going back to work. But for those people still earning too much to qualify for public assistance, but not enough to get the food they need, their problems will not go away, not unless we come up with a better, and more accurate, description of what poverty means in the United States. 

Obama responds to dramatic rise in hunger

The Obama administration responded yesterday to the release of new government data on domestic food security that revealed a dramatic rise in hunger since the start of the recession.

Below is the entire statement with a short commentary afterwards.

“As American families prepare to gather for Thanksgiving, we received an unsettling report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that found that hunger rose significantly last year. This trend was already painfully clear in many communities across our nation, where food stamp applications are surging and food pantry shelves are emptying.

It is particularly troubling that there were more than 500,000 families in which a child experienced hunger multiple times over the course of the year. Our children’s ability to grow, learn, and meet their full potential – and therefore our future competitiveness as a nation – depends on regular access to healthy meals.

My Administration is committed to reversing the trend of rising hunger. The first task is to restore job growth, which will help relieve the economic pressures that make it difficult for parents to put a square meal on the table each day. But we are also taking targeted steps to prevent Americans from experiencing hunger. Earlier this year, we extended help to those hit hardest by this economic downturn by boosting SNAP benefits. And Secretary Vilsack is working hard to make sure eligible families are able to access those benefits as well as the School Lunch and Breakfast Program. In addition, a bill I signed into law last month invests $85 million in new strategies to prevent children from experiencing hunger in the summer.

Hunger is a problem that we can solve together, and I look forward to working with Congress to pass a strong child nutrition bill that will help children get the healthy meals they need to grow and succeed – and help keep America competitive in the decades to come.”

I want to underscore one sentence in the above: "The first task is to restore job growth, which will help relieve the economic pressures that make it difficult for parents to put a square meal on the table each day."

Indeed, Mr. President. Bread for the World Institute is here to offer your administration some advice.

Next week the Institute will be releasing the 2010 Hunger Report: A Just and Sustainable Recovery, laying out an agenda to restore job growth. The 2010 report is a follow up to our 2008 Hunger Report: Working Harder for Working Families in which we looked at the programs and policies that make up the safety net working families depend on. We cover a little bit of that ground in the 2010 report, but A Just and Sustainable Recovery is focused much more on the U.S. economy writ large and what it will take to get it growing again and continue to grow sustainably for everyone.

Lots more is coming on the new report starting in a few days.


Huge rise in domestic hunger reported by US government

Today, the government updated current information of food security in the United States, revealing a huge rise in the number of Americans that are food insecure, meaning they were at risk of hunger or had experienced hunger during the annual period data were collected.

It is the largest jump in food insecurity and the most number of people that are food insecure at any time since 1995, when the government began keeping track of domestic food security.

Here's a quick breakdown - keep in mind these numbers are for 2008 and don't cover the deepest period of the recession:

  • 49.1 million Americans were food insecure in 2008 - up from 36.2 million in 2007

  • 16.67 million were children - up from 12.43 million from 2007

  • 22.5 percent of all children were food insecure - up from 16.9 percent in 2007

  • 14.6 percent of all households were food insecure - up from 11.1 percent in 2008

  • 5.7 percent of households experienced "very low food security," a term the government has been using the last few years as a stand in for hunger - and this was up from 4.1 percent in 2007.

While these numbers were not entirely unexpected, they still present a terribly alarming piece of news, depicting the grim toll this recession is having. 

Congratulations to Sharon Thornberry

Normally, the focus here at the Institute is on national issues or international food security or poverty in the developing world, but sometimes anti-hunger efforts at the local level speak to larger issues in such a clear and riveting way, their importance beyond what’s happening locally resonates instantly.

The Oregonian published a story on November 9 about Sharon Thornberry, who works with the Oregon Food Bank and also happens to be a Bread for the World board member, and was recently named a public health genius by the Community Health Partnership.

The citation of the award reads:

The 2009 Billi Odegaard Public Health Genius is Sharon Thornberry, Community Food Programs Advocate at the Oregon Food Bank. Sharon has been influential in policy advocacy, coalition building, and incubating many ‘grassroots’ food-related efforts from conception to completion. She has tirelessly dedicated herself to increasing access to healthy food for low-income communities – particularly in often overlooked rural Oregon.

What Thornberry has been doing for years, or more like decades, is connecting the problem of hunger with the problem of food systems. “The failure of our food system has such an affect on our health,” Thornberry says. “Without working on the food system, we will never be well.”

A food system approach to hunger, as spelled out by the Community Food Security Coalition, where Thornberry has also been a board member, “might address the problem of child obesity  by looking at the lack of fruits and vegetables in the diet; the lack of fresh fruit and vegetable vendors in a neighborhood (and the surplus of calorically dense food); the dearth of local gardening opportunities, farms, and farmers’ markets as sources of fresh fruits and vegetables; the diminishing knowledge base regarding fruit and vegetable recognition and preparation; and a decline in school-based physical education programs.”

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