By Lorrie Baumann
The U.S. doesn’t have a shortage of food or a shortage of food assistance programs. Despite that, in 2014, 5.6 percent of American households – that’s about 7 million households – had experienced hunger in the past year, for an average of about seven months, according to a new report from the National Commission on Hunger titled “Freedom from Hunger: An Achievable Goal for the United States of America.” The commission was created by Congress to recommend ways to use existing USDA funds to combat domestic hunger and food insecurity.
Hunger in the United States isn’t a result of famine; it comes from many factors that mean that, while there’s food available, many people can’t afford enough of it. The percent of households facing hunger rose from 4.1 percent in 2007, before the Great Recession, to 5.4 percent in 2010, and it’s been holding steady around 5.6 percent ever since, despite six years of economic recovery.
Some of that’s because not enough Americans are working or are underemployed. Labor force participation has been declining since its peak in 2000, which means that many people who could work aren’t doing so. Structural changes in the American economy, away from manufacturing and toward more service jobs, have meant that there are fewer job opportunities for people who don’t have a college education. If you graduated from high school and went right to work, you’re more likely to hold a job that pays low wages and is part-time, unstable or seasonal. The job may not have much opportunity for career advancement and may not offer benefits such as sick leave and family leave. These jobs are also associated with major income instability, and these are the kinds of conditions that can cause a household to experience hunger, according to the report. “We hear every day loud and clear from all areas of the state that people can’t support their families,” said Donna Yellen, Chief Program Officer from Preble Street, which operates eight local soup kitchens in Maine, in her testimony before the Commission. “They can’t get food because they can’t find decent jobs.”
The costs of hunger include greater health care expenditures, reduced worker productivity and greater rates of worker absenteeism. Senior adults are among the most vulnerable to hunger, and the number of older adults is expected to rive over the next few decades. Compared to seniors who don’t experience hunger, those who are hungry are three times as likely to suffer from depression, 50 percent more likely to have diabetes and 60 percent more likely to have congestive heart failure or a heart attack.
Hunger also has indirect costs, including impairment of childhood health and development, which exacts a price in their academic achievement and even their mental health. About 4.4 million of people in households that include children under 6 are in households that report hunger, and households headed by single parents are particularly vulnerable. Adults in these households frequently go without food so they can feed their children, but that affects their ability to juggle parenting, work and self-care, according to the report. Hungry adults have higher rates of obesity and diabetes.
While the government can’t solve the problem of hunger within our borders alone, improvements in government programs can play a part. The government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (the program formerly known as Food Stamps) needs to get better, as do child assistance programs. Those programs are neither as effective, cooperative or as efficient as they should be, according to the Commission.
The U. S. spent $103.6 billion on food and nutrition assistance programs in 2014, with one in four Americans having participated in at least one of the government’s 15 food assistance programs at some point during the year. The largest of these government programs are SNAP, WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children), the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, the Summer Food Service Program and the Child and Adult Care Food Program.
WIC provides food, health care referrals and nutrition education for low-income pregnant or post-partum women and to infants and children under five who are at nutritional risk. In 2014, more than half of all newborn children in the United States participated in the WIC program, which has been credited with a 68 percent reduction in hunger among families with young children. WIC is associated with healthier births, more nutritious diets and improved cognitive development as well as a greater likelihood that children will be immunized, according to Kate Breslin, President and CEO of the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy, who testified before the Commission.
SNAP is the country’s largest food assistance program. It works by giving low-income individuals and households additional income to buy groceries. SNAP provided assistance to 46.5 million people in an average month in 2014 and is credited with decreasing the percentage of households experiencing hunger by 12 percent to 19 percent. In households participating in SNAP, children are 16 percent less likely to be at risk of developmental delays, and they have lower rates of hospitalization compared to children in similar households that don’t participate in SNAP.
The National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs operate in more than 100,000 schools and residential institutions and served more than 30 million students in the 2014 fiscal year. In 2014, nearly 22 million school children received a free or reduced price school lunch.
In addition to these government programs, a variety of individuals, nonprofit organizations, faith-based organizations and corporations are engaged in hunger relief efforts in their communities. These include Feeding America, the largest umbrella organization for food banks and food rescue organizations. In 2010, Feeding America-affiliated agencies distributed food to 37 million Americans, including 14 million children. More recently, in 2015, the Specialty Food Association donated more than 97,000 pounds of food at last Summer’s Fancy Food Show with the help of 324 City Harvest volunteers and another 100,000 pounds of food at the 2015 Winter Fancy Food Show in conjunction with Feed the Hungry. “Stonewall Kitchen, like a lot of other companies here at the Fancy Food Show, is a small company. We’re not a faceless corporation. We know the people in our communities. We donate food, and we work at our local soup kitchens in Maine and New Hampshire, so donating our food here at the show is just a logical extension of that,” said John Stiker, CEO of Stonewall Kitchen.
Most of the Commission’s recommendations for improving government food assistance programs without additional spending relate to improvements in either SNAP or child nutrition programs. For SNAP, the Commission recommendations are intended to promote work, improve nutrition and enhance well-being. In particular, the Commission recommends that Congress and the USDA should require states to encourage SNAP applicants who are able to work to do so by supporting them in their efforts to seek employment or participate in work-related activities that might realistically lead to available jobs. The Commission also recommended that individual states should have more flexibility in how they use employment and training funding tied to SNAP, so that, for instance, a state might use some of its SNAP money to provide substance abuse and mental health treatment if that’s what will help a SNAP recipient get back to work.
The Commission also recommends that Congress and the USDA should find ways to encourage SNAP recipients to purchase fruits, vegetables, high-quality proteins, whole grains and other healthy foods and to disallow the use of SNAP benefits for purchases of sugar-sweetened beverages. These might include requiring grocery stores and other stores that qualify as SNAP vendors to devote more prominent shelf space for healthier foods and vegetables.