New President Needs New Anti-Hunger Plan
Every holiday season for the past eight years, our nation's editorial and opinion pages have been filled with outrage against America's growing hunger problem.
They often discussed the soaring number of Americans who lived in homes that can't afford enough food -- at the last tally, in 2007, that number was 36.5 million people, 700,000 more Americans than in 2006. There are now more than 12 million American children who live in homes without enough food.
They decried the reality that a growing number of Americans (currently 25 million), and particularly working people, were forced to use emergency food pantries and soup kitchens, which were often unable to handle the increase in demand, often turning people away, because of decreased government funding and hikes in food prices.
Each year, the numbers were even more alarming than the previous year.
And, by rote, these opinion-makers across the country said that the problem could be solved if only our nation had the "political will" to do so. In truth, the nation didn't, so the problem only worsened. And it has become increasingly clear that the nation's system of dedicated but under-funded and under-staffed feeding charities can't possibly solve the problem when government is falling down on its job.
But this year is different. For the first time in history, we have a president-elect who grew up in a family that received food stamp benefits and who promised to end child hunger in the United States within his first six years in office.
And, in a bipartisan exit poll conducted nationwide on Election Day by McLaughlin & Associates and Freedman Consulting, 73 percent of Americans said they supported ending child hunger by 2015, even if it meant paying a bit more in taxes.
Such campaign promises and theoretical public support aside, it is hardly a given that, with our economy in a meltdown, the new president and Congress will be able to make the case that they should spend new money on this problem. It will be tough enough for them to pass a short-term stimulus package that includes a marginal boost in anti-hunger funding, although they have the powerful argument that, if food stamp benefits are expanded, consumers will immediately spend them, thereby supporting jobs related to manufacturing, trucking, warehousing and retailing of food.
And the American people won't likely support providing large sums of money to simply expand existing government programs, which they believe are overly bureaucratic and insufficiently accountable.
That's why the new president needs a new type of hunger plan that should focus on three compelling themes: self-interest, reform and accountability.
Hunger costs our nation an estimated $90 billion per year due to decreased work productivity, stunted educational performance and increased health care spending, according to a Harvard study.
We must stress that ending hunger and improving child nutrition would be one of the most effective tools to boost the nation's international economic competitiveness.
The federal government currently sponsors more than a dozen different nutritional assistance programs. Each has its own application process and bureaucracy at the federal, state and local levels.
Over the last few decades, these programs have succeeded in all-but-wiping-out Third World-style starvation in America. But they need to be reformed and adapted to needs of a new century.
This bewildering patchwork of programs makes it both more difficult for families to get the help they need and wastes taxpayer dollars. All these programs should be combined into one streamlined food benefit -- available to eligible families though one simple application available online or locally. And we must make it easier for low-income children to obtain nutritious school breakfasts, after-school snacks and summer meals.
Finally, the anti-hunger effort should be more accountable to the taxpayers. The president should task the Secretary of Agriculture with specific yearly goals for hunger reduction and nutrition improvement and ask Congress to give the secretary the resources necessary to meet them.
Additional federal funds also should be set aside for states, cities, counties, American Indian tribes, and faith-based and secular non-profit groups that enact innovative anti-hunger solutions of proven effectiveness.
Perhaps next year, we can finally read Thanksgiving-week editorials extolling the progress we've made in fighting hunger. But, in order to get there, we'll need both a new will and a new way.
© 2008 Blethen Maine Newspapers