"President Obama has promised to end child hunger in the United States by 2015. But you haven't heard about it. The media is writing about what Michelle Obama is wearing. Or what kind of dog they're going to get," Joel Berg almost shouted.
Fifty people showed up to hear Mr. Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, talk about his new book, "All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?" at WPXI last night.
While the subject was grim -- more than 36 million Americans currently live in a state of food insecurity -- the mood was surprisingly optimistic.
Mr. Berg marshaled plenty of statistics, but he also spoke about the progress that has been made and would continue to be made as long as people commit to ending hunger, rather than just mitigating its effects.
"Hunger is a problem that needs to be solved by the government, not by food banks or soup kitchens," Mr. Berg explained in an earlier interview. "If you doubled all the private food banks, it would knock a few million people out of hunger, [but] you could entirely end the problem almost overnight by just increasing funding and increasing eligibility to existing programs," such as food stamp programs, WIC and school meal programs.
In 2007 more than 10 percent of households in Pennsylvania experienced hunger at some point. In 2009 those numbers are undoubtably worse. Just Harvest and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, which co-hosted the talk, have firsthand knowledge of how much worse. The latter organization, a nonprofit that distributes food through outlets such as soup kitchens, Meals on Wheels and after-school programs, has been serving an average of 2,000 new households each month since August 2008.
But these circumstances have also created an unusual moment of opportunity for advocates such as Mr. Berg and other anti-hunger organizations to press for dramatic, substantial change, some of which has already started.
The federal government is about to release food-related stimulus funds that include money to help Americans who don't have enough money for basic necessities. According to Just Harvest and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, Pennsylvania alone could receive an estimated $754 million in additional food stamps funding over two years.
On a smaller scale, Michael Peck, food services director for Pittsburgh Public Schools, expanded the free meal program so that 66 schools and 18 early-childhood centers offer free breakfasts to all students and 41 schools and centers with the highest poverty rates offer free lunches to all students. He was able to get increased federal subsidies to support these expansions.
But Mr. Berg wants more than just increased funding. "As of two years ago, it would take about $24 billion to end hunger," Mr. Berg explained, pointing out that was only 2 percent of the bailout funds. "But unless you significantly reduce poverty, you're going to have to keep pumping money into [federal programs] every year."