The way to end hunger is to feed people, right? That may seem like a no-brainer but it is not enough.
When Harry Chapin and I co-Founded WhyHunger in 1975 we knew that hunger in America had become a major problem. From the beginning, we believed that the root cause of hunger is poverty and the root cause of poverty is powerlessness in the face of economic injustice. We also knew that racism was at the core of hunger and poverty for tens of millions of Americans. Tragically, that has not changed in more than 40 years even though progress has been made on several fronts.
Federal nutrition programs were in their infancy or adolescence in 1975. Food stamps were not free. The Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Program (WIC) had only started in 1974. The School Lunch Program had been growing for almost 30 years but was still not universal. The Summer Meals Program was just beginning and the School Breakfast Program was almost ten years old but still reached a small percentage of children.
Food banks were just sprouting up here and there around the country and in most cities and rural areas soup kitchens and food pantries were few and far between. When WhyHunger started the New York City Hunger Hotline in 1978 there were only about 28 emergency food providers in all of New York City. Now there are well over a thousand. There were virtually no emergency food providers in the suburbs which now have the highest growth rate in the country for hunger and poverty.
Over the past 40 years thousands of community based organizations and dozens of national anti- hunger/anti- poverty organizations have worked tirelessly to strengthen the Federal Nutrition Programs with continuing success. Food Stamps have been replaced by a much more efficient and user friendly free debit card, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Some 45.5 million people are now served by SNAP. Child Nutrition and Senior Nutrition programs have grown and improved as well.
Meanwhile, we have created the most effective system of Emergency Food Providers in the world, some 60,500 soup kitchens, food pantries and homeless shelters and more than 200 food banks run by the most hard working, well intentioned charitable people imaginable. Every year they serve more food to more people, most who are also being helped by one or more of the federal food programs.
On one level, this is an amazing success story. Because of the federal food programs and the emergency food providers we did not have the massive hunger in the streets during the recent Great Recession that our grandparents and some of our parents suffered during the Great Depression of the 1930s. And yet, we still have 48 million people including 15.3 million children in 17.4 million families who are called food insecure. That does not mean they are starving but that they must often skip meals, buy cheap non nutritious food and suffer bad physical and psychological health. Hunger and food insecurity costs the country $160.7 billion a year in healthcare and other costs. Why? With all this valiant effort and billions spent to feed hungry people, why do we still have so much hunger in America?
First of all, we need to recognize that feeding hungry people, as important as it may be, is only the first step in ending hunger. The salaries of most Americans have not kept up with the escalating costs in housing, healthcare, higher education, childcare and many household items. The national unemployment numbers are half of what they were during the worst of the Great Recession but wages are still too low and too many people do not have full time jobs that pay a living wage. The federal government says that if you have a family of four and you make more than $24,250 a year you are not poor. That is not realistic anywhere in the country but it is ridiculous in our major cities where housing has skyrocketed. Believe it or not, there are 22 million people who live on less than half of that $24,250. Imagine trying to live on $12,125 a year just by yourself.
What should we do beyond what has already been accomplished during the past forty or fifty years to end hunger in America? A recent Special Report: America's Food Banks Say Charity Won't End Hunger says that we need to transform the systems and policies that perpetuate hunger.
The reason that Bernie Sanders has such a large following, especially among young people is that he has focused on what candidate Bill Clinton won the presidency on, "it's the economy, stupid." Sanders and Hillary Clinton's' long laundry list of economic issues starting with raising the minimum wage and making health insurance and college affordable would transform systems and policies. It is the way to fight hunger and poverty along with the creation of well- paying jobs with benefits.
Let's go back to the beginning of this article where we said that the root cause of hunger is poverty and the root cause of poverty is powerlessness in the face of economic and racial injustice. There is a vibrant Food and Hunger Movement now that encourages people to grow their own food in their backyards and in community gardens, to become part of a Community Supported Agriculture(CSA) , to support the growing Farm to School Programs to bring fresh fruits and vegetables into our schools and much more. All are important steps beyond emergency food.
This Food and Hunger Movement is allied with the larger movement for economic and racial justice. Let's keep working to improve the federal nutrition programs, our emergency food system and support creative ways to have people eat more nutritious food, but let's not fool ourselves. Feeding hungry people is only the first step in ending hunger. The next step is happening now to organize people to stand up for higher wages and benefits, affordable higher education, healthcare and nutritious food for all. Our job as citizens is to help our fellow Americans to get it and to vote in their best economic interests, not for presidential, congressional and state wide candidates who will further impoverish them. In the meantime, find out what is happening in your community to fight hunger and poverty. You may very well start by helping to feed people but don't stop there.