The holiday season is a time when Americans traditionally remember those who are hungry. But news reports of the last few weeks make the plight of many of our fellow citizens particularly unforgettable. With the participation in the food stamp program currently increasing by a shocking 20,000 people a day, the hunger crisis now warrants direct intervention by President Obama. Though formidable, the hunger problem is solvable, especially if the president provides stronger leadership and coordination with the nation's governors than we have yet seen.
Consider this troubling new data:
- Last week the US Department of Agriculture documented record increases in the number of American families who experienced hunger between 2007 and 2008, finding that 49 million Americans were struggling to put food on the table. 17 million of those affected are children.
- Share Our Strength released a survey of 740 K-8 public school teachers conducted by Lake Research Partners finding that 62 percent of teachers see kids who are hungry because they do not get enough to eat at home, and an equal percentage of teachers use personal funds from their own teacher salaries to regularly buy food for the kids to eat in class or take home for weekends.
- The New York Times found that 1 in 4 American children are on food stamps and in St Louis, Memphis and New Orleans among other places half of the children or more receive food stamps. In many counties the number of people on the food stamp rolls has doubled in just two years.
The recession has brought the issue of hunger into sharp relief but is also producing some effective responses.
America, in its abundance, does not lack food. That is not why kids are hungry. Nor do we lack public food and nutrition programs. They have existed and expanded for decades with strong bipartisan support. Kids who are hungry in America are hungry because they lack access to such programs. That is a solvable problem.
Governors Martin O'Malley in Maryland and Bill Ritter in Colorado are solving it by directing state agencies to work with community organizations to identify and eliminate institutional barriers to accessing such programs. That might mean moving school breakfast, which has roughly half the participation of school lunch, from the cafeteria before school to first period when students don't face the same transportation challenges or stigma of arriving early. It often means organizing alternative summer feeding sites to provide meals when the schools are closed. The result can be tens of millions of already authorized and appropriated federal dollars flowing into states that have otherwise suffered massive budget and program cuts.
Just imagine if a defense contractor in a state knew that millions of dollars had been appropriated for a project in its state and could be accessed if the Governor made an effort to bring it in. Do you think a lobbyist might bring it to the Governor's attention? Hungry children in America have no such lobbyists.
To their credit, Governors like O'Malley and Ritter are acting aggressively even in the absence of such pressures. They are proving what a little ingenuity can achieve even during a recession, or perhaps especially during a recession. And they are finding ways to promote programs they care about even if they don't have dollars in their state budget to fund them.
But not all Governors have hunger on their radar screen. Others bristle at and resist any type of funding that comes with administrative strings attached, even though the Administration has been willing to waive burdensome regulations to increase participation during this time of hardship.
When the USDA report was issued President Obama repeated the pledge he made during the campaign to end childhood hunger by 2015. And he has staffed the Agriculture Department that oversees such programs with talented and committed people. But with hunger reaching the epidemic scale documented in recent reports, even more must be done. The president should urgently convene the nation's governors to personally educate, persuade, and if necessary shame them into action.
The president's ambitions for health care, education and a host of other issues are tied to the opportunities our children have to access the nutritious food they need to learn, grow, and compete. Food and nutrition programs are already in place to do that. But it will take leadership and coordination with the governors who have the responsibility to make those programs work. Failing banks and auto companies warranted the president's personal engagement. The growing epidemic of hungry children deserves no less.
Bill Shore is the founder and executive director of Share Our Strength.