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Going Hungry in the Richest Nation on Earth

by Matthew O. Berger

WASHINGTON - While many U.S. residents prepare for their annual Thanksgiving feast Thursday, one in six are at risk of hunger - including a quarter of all children in the country.

Globally, 925 million people, or a little less than 15 percent of the world population, is undernourished. Ironically, Washington's efforts to alleviate hunger abroad may be more successful than at home, analysts say.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's estimate last week that 49 million U.S. residents, including 17 million children, lacked adequate food at some point during 2009 came about a week before the annual post-harvest celebration of Thanksgiving, during which many U.S. kitchens are filled with the bounties expected by residents of such a wealthy country. But not everyone can expect those bounties, it turns out.

The number of "food insecure" households in the U.S. jumped in 2008 due to the economic crisis, but failed to come back down in 2009.

To address this persistent problem, the U.S. government has nutrition assistance programs, and those were generally expanded in the wake of the economic crisis. They seem to have worked over the past couple years.

Even though unemployment rose from just under nine million to over 14 million between 2008 and 2009, food insecurity did not increase, points out Kevin Concannon, U.S. under-secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services.

These numbers, he says, "are very supportive of the experience that we are hearing across the country that the 15 federal nutrition assistance programs are indeed doing what they are intended to do, and that is respond to people. We have seen the strengths of these programs in action."

But as Washington's attention has turned to reducing the federal debt, this nutrition safety net is once again being slimmed down.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called the Food Stamp Program, for instance, is meant to prevent to allow the poorest to afford food even when it is too expensive for them. It was expanded through economic stimulus funding, but now faces cutbacks.

Some of those cuts are because money will go to other nutrition assistance programs, but some is simply because of an emphasis of politics.

Leading up to the U.S. Congressional elections earlier this month, "both sides [Republicans and Democrats] were convinced that any poverty-related discussion would scare away middle-class voters, ignoring the reality that tens of millions of Americans, formerly solidly middle-class, were teetering on the edge of poverty and hunger themselves," says Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.

Meanwhile, reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which would provide funding for school meals programs, has yet to be approved by Congress.

President Barack Obama has also called for 400 million dollars to be invested in expanding access to fresh, healthy food in underserved, traditionally poor neighborhoods - sometimes called "food deserts", where convenience stores and fast food restaurants are often the only food options nearby.

For now, though, the pockets of low-income communities without adequate food that have existed for decades still persist.

Fighting hunger abroad

Needless to say, if hunger cannot even be eliminated in the U.S., the picture is far more dire overseas. The U.N. says that 925 million people will suffer chronic hunger this year, down from 2009's one billion, but still the second largest number on record.

A report released Monday by the NGO Bread for the World, though, says that progress against this daunting challenge is possible, and that a large part of that progress should be the U.S.'s Feed the Future initiative.

Feed the Future will funnel 3.5 billion dollars over three years to overseas development assistance focused on agriculture.

It reverses what Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), calls the "decades-long neglect of agriculture-led development".

Calling the program the most important development strategy to come out of Washington in 50 years, Shah said Monday that Bread for the World's report "aptly reminds us that in order to tackle the root causes of hunger and malnutrition, we need to invest in smallholder farmers and focus on integrating nutrition and agriculture development through a country-led approach."

Last week, Shah and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that Feed the Future would be overseen by USAID and, Monday, Shah announced a Bureau of Food Security within the agency to manage the initiative.

The U.S.'s recent increased focus on food security abroad is thought to be in reaction to the food price crisis of 2007- 08, after which many governments realized they had been underinvesting in agriculture.

"The food price crisis was a wakeup call. It started a new global conversation about hunger, malnutrition and food security," said Asma Lateef, director of Bread for the World. "Two years later, with U.S. leadership, there is a renewed focus on smallholder agriculture and reversing decades of neglect - just as we enter a new period of rising food prices."

The U.N. says that two-thirds of the world's hungry are in just seven countries, but it is clear there are significant pockets of undernourishment everywhere - even in the United States.

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