It's always shocking to hear how many Americans can't afford enough healthy food to get through the month -- 36.2 million people live in such households at last count -- but it's especially troubling when you consider how many of the hungry are children. More than 12 million children -- nearly 17 percent of all children in the country -- live in homes that are struggling with hunger, hindering them from growing, learning and succeeding in school.
During the presidential campaign, President Obama pledged to end childhood hunger in America by 2015. It's an ambitious pledge and one that he's clearly standing behind. According to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the president instructed him that "what I want you to do first, the most important thing in this job, is to make sure America's kids are well fed."
As a nation we have only six years to reach this goal of ending childhood hunger and it will not be easy. But the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) has described the essential strategies needed to make the 2015 pledge a reality. They are the measures required if we're serious about ending the scandal of childhood hunger in the U.S. and bolstering the health and futures of our children.
FRAC's seven step plan:
First, we must restore economic growth and create jobs with better wages for lower-income workers. A broad recovery that creates good jobs with benefits will help many more families fully meet their children's needs.
Second, we must lift the incomes of low earning workers by increasing the minimum wage and strengthening refundable tax credits and other supports that help make work pay.
Third, we must strengthen the Food Stamp Program (recently renamed SNAP) by making monthly benefits adequate for a healthy diet, expanding eligibility and making other overdue, targeted improvements.
Fourth, we must strengthen Child Nutrition Programs to ensure that many more children receive the benefits of a good school breakfast and lunch as well as healthy nutrition in out-of-school settings, such as child care centers and afterschool and summer programs. These programs are due to be rewritten in Congress this year and we can improve them to make a real difference in the lives of children.
Fifth, the entire federal government must be engaged in ending childhood hunger. This goal should be a government-wide priority and meeting it will require focus not just from the Department of Agriculture but from such agencies as the Departments of Health and Human Services, Education, and Justice, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and key White House offices.
Sixth, we must make sure all families have convenient access to reasonably priced, healthy food. Let's find new ways to grow access to healthy food in what now are "food deserts," with a new national focus on having good grocery stores accessible in all low-income communities.
Seventh, we must work with states, localities and nonprofits to expand and improve participation in federal nutrition programs. Low-income families will only benefit when they know how to get the help that's out there, and when unnecessary red tape is eliminated.
Much of the work will fall to Congress and the president. But to end childhood hunger by 2015, it's incumbent on all of us -- national, state and local public officials, anti-hunger advocates, child advocates, faith-based institutions, business, labor, and service providers -- to stand behind the goal. FRAC's strategies are meant to provide a starting point from which to grow, foster dialogue and build momentum. We hope you'll join us on this critical journey toward 2015.
Jim Weill is the president of the Food Research and Action Center, the leading national nonprofit organization working to improve public policies and public-private partnerships to eradicate hunger and undernutrition in the United States. FRAC's full seven-point set of strategies can be found at www.endingchildhunger2015.org.