12/10/2013 08:25 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2014

Ghosts of Hunger Past, Present, and Future

When I read the unabridged version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol for the first time, I, like many readers, was struck by Ebenezer Scrooge's contempt for the poor. Early in the story, prior to the visits from the now-famous ghosts, a gentleman comes to the office of Scrooge and Marley trying to raise funds for the poor. Ebenezer responds with scorn, saying there are prisons, sweatshops, and charities to deal with the poor, and tells the fund-raiser, "I help to support establishments I have mentioned -- they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there." What struck me is not just the callousness of Scrooge's words, but how this apathy toward the poor and hungry persists, especially in modern America. At a time when the food stamp program (formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) is keeping millions out of poverty and easing the struggles of those who are already poor, our Congress is mulling over how best to cut the program. Perhaps three ghosts need to pay our "leaders" a visit and awaken their Scrooge-ish consciences.

If a "Ghost of Hunger Past" were to visit members of Congress, it could take them back to 1967, when Senator Robert F. Kennedy, a man born into wealth and privilege, took a tour of the Mississippi delta, urban ghettos, and Appalachia with civil rights activist Marian Wright to personally witness poverty in America. Though his brother, President John Kennedy, had re-started the food stamp program in 1961, and President Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act (better known as the "War on Poverty") in 1964, Senator Robert Kennedy continued to advocate for policies to eradicate hunger and poverty in America, based on the hardships he saw first-hand among his fellow Americans. He could have rested on his laurels or on the policy accomplishments of colleagues, but instead he kept asking, "How else can we help?" This model of leadership is the Ghost of Hunger Past's lesson for Congress: go directly to needy Americans yourself, and feel their pain as your own. Use those experiences with fellow human beings to strengthen existing programs like SNAP, and develop new approaches to eliminate modern American poverty.

Perhaps a "Ghost of Hunger Present" could chaperone members of Congress to show them the real-life importance of today's SNAP food stamps and other hunger-reducing policies. They would not have to travel far. From the front door of one of my clinics in southeast Washington, D.C, a neighborhood with one of the highest rates of poverty in the country, my patients and I can see the dome of the Capitol. Right here in the District of Columbia, 37.4% of households with children say they are unable to afford enough food. That is one of the highest rates of food hardship in the country. SNAP supports 47 million Americans living at or below $26,000 per year (that's 130% of the federal poverty level for a family of three), making food stamps a true lifeline to my patients and to the millions of American children who receive them. Among households receiving SNAP assistance, 76% of them include children, the elderly, and/or the disabled. The SNAP program improves my families' access to healthy food because they can use their food stamps at the two full-service grocery stores in Wards 7 and 8 or at the few farmers' markets on this side of the Anacostia River. These are the only real sources to buy fresh fruits, vegetables, and other healthy food in the poverty-stricken neighborhood I serve, which is not all that different from other poor communities in America.

In addition to helping my patients survive in their neighborhood's "food desert," federal nutrition programs provide them and over 20 million American children with free or reduced-price school lunches. There are 11 million children nationwide who also receive breakfast at school through federal nutrition programs. The "Ghost of Hunger Present" would remind us that when students eat a healthy breakfast at school they score 17.5% higher on math tests and attend 1.5 more days of school per year. Funding for school meals represents an investment in our students and the future of our workforce and economy.

In terms of the incredible impact SNAP and federal nutrition programs have made on child health, researchers at Children's HealthWatch have described nutrition assistance as a powerful vaccine against the dangers of food insecurity. Children from food-insecure families are 90% more likely than children from food-secure families to have their health reported as "fair" or "poor" (versus "good" or "excellent"). Their doctors seem to agree, because the odds of having been hospitalized are 31% greater for food-insecure children than for kids who have regular access to nutritious food through programs like SNAP and school meals.

Despite all these significant supports for poor and struggling families, federal nutrition programs are facing very drastic cuts from both of the Farm Bills being considered in Congress. In June, the Senate passed a bill (S. 954) that would cut SNAP by $4 billion over 10 years. This past September, the House of Representatives passed a bill (H.R. 3102) that would cut SNAP by $40 billion over 10 years. The two chambers are in the process of reconciling these misguided pieces of legislation. The American Academy of Pediatrics denounced the House bill, and reminded our members of Congress that because children receive almost 50% of all SNAP benefits, they will suffer disproportionately from these cuts. If the House bill's draconian cuts come to pass, then 3 million people will lose nutritional assistance every year for the next 10 years. Under this legislation 210,000 children will be denied meals at school. There is no way for our already overwhelmed charities to meet the needs of this many more hungry Americans.

As a pediatrician caring for needy children, I urge Congress to pass a Farm Bill that supports funding for SNAP and federal nutrition programs. We do not need to wait for a "Ghost of Hunger Future" because hunger and poverty are problems that must be addressed now. We already know the devastating consequences of food insecurity, both temporary and persistent, and the specter of hunger's future is unacceptable for our country, the "land of plenty." Congress must reject the phantoms of misinformation about food stamp recipients, and enlist a greater spirit of duty to their brethren. As a recently departed hero, Nelson Mandela, once said, "Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. And overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity.It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life. While poverty persists, there is no true freedom."