The Weekly Food Research and Action Center News Digest highlights what's new on hunger, nutrition and poverty issues at FRAC, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, around the network of national, state and local anti-poverty and anti-hunger organizations, and in the media. The Digest will alert you to trends, reports, news items and resources and, when available, link you directly to them.
On Monday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that more than 49.1 million Americans lived in households struggling against hunger in 2008. This was a jump of 13 million; previously, in 2007, 36.2 million Americans were in food insecure households. The 2008 number is the highest ever in the history of the survey that USDA started in 1995.
The number of people in the worst-off category (living in “very low food secure” households) – the hungriest Americans – experienced the fastest pace of growth, rising from 11.9 million to 17.3 million in one year. And even before this jump, the situation had been eroding: in many categories, the numbers are double what they were in 2000.
President Obama released a statement on USDA's findings, calling the report "unsettling" and noting he was particularly troubled about the increase in the number of “families in which a child experienced hunger multiple times over the course of the year. Our children’s ability to grow, learn, and meet their full potential – and therefore our future competitiveness as a nation – depends on regular access to healthy meals."
The President also outlined the tasks his Administration is committed to undertake to reverse this trend, including restoring job growth. He noted that "[e]arlier this year, we extended help to those hit hardest by this economic downturn by boosting SNAP benefits. Secretary Vilsack is working hard to make sure eligible families are able to access those benefits as well as the School Lunch and Breakfast Program. In addition, a bill I signed into law last month invests $85 million in new strategies to prevent children from experiencing hunger in the summer."
The report's findings were covered by news media across the country. The following is a selection of articles and editorials generated by the new numbers.
“While Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said programs such as food stamps softened the impact of an economic recession, anti-hunger groups pointed to the huge increase from the preceding year when 36.2 million people had trouble getting enough food and a third of them occasionally went hungry. “The survey suggested that things could be much worse but for the fact that we have extensive food assistance programs,’ Vilsack told reporters.
USDA's annual report was based on a survey conducted in December 2008, soon after financial markets slumped and when the jobless rate was marching toward its current 10.2 percent.
"The numbers are even worse than people otherwise believed," said Jim Weill of the Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger group. "We all know we have the worst downturn since the Depression."
Vilsack said the report represented "an opportunity here for the country to make a major commitment to end childhood hunger by 2015," an administration goal. He called on Congress to make it easier for poor children to get free school meals and to improve the nutritional quality of those meals. David Beckmann of the anti-hunger group Bread for the World called for stronger federal anti-hunger programs. "The recession has made the problem of hunger worse, and it has also made it more visible," he said.””
“Analysts said the main reason for the growth was the rise in the unemployment rate, to 7.2 percent at the end of 2008 from 4.9 percent a year earlier. And since it now stands at 10.2 percent, the survey might in fact understate the number of Americans struggling to get adequate food.
“These numbers are a wake-up call for the country,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.” One figure that drew officials’ attention was the number of households, 506,000, in which children faced “very low food security”: up from 323,000 the previous year. President Obama, who has pledged to end childhood hunger by 2015, released a statement while traveling in Asia that called the finding “particularly troubling.”
James Weill, the director of the food center that pioneered the report, called it a careful look at an underappreciated condition. “Many people are outright hungry, skipping meals,” he said. “Others say they have enough to eat but only because they’re going to food pantries or using food stamps. We describe it as ‘households struggling with hunger.’ ”
“Congress should make a priority of expanding federal nutrition programs that are aimed at helping millions of struggling families feed their children. The need to bolster these programs was underscored again this week in a dismaying Department of Agriculture study showing that a record number of households had trouble getting sufficient food at one time or another last year.
...President Obama has dealt with [the survey] openly and called the danger to children especially troubling.
Mr. Obama, who is traveling in Asia, has set himself the task of wiping out child hunger by 2015. To do that, Congress needs to get busy on a broad plan to expand and fully pay for a whole range of nutritional programs aimed at school-age children and their families. Only then will vulnerable children across the country get the nutrition they need.”
“At a time when rising poverty, widespread unemployment and other effects of the recession have been well documented, the report released Monday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides the government's first detailed portrait of the toll that the faltering economy has taken on Americans' access to food.
The findings also intensify pressure on the White House to fulfill a pledge to stamp out childhood hunger made by President Obama.
“It's frankly just deeply upsetting," said James D. Weill, president of the Washington-based Food [Research] and Action Center. As the economy eroded, Weill said, "you had more and more people getting pushed closer to the cliff's edge. Then this huge storm came along and pushed them over."
"My Administration is committed to reversing the trend of rising hunger," the president said in a statement. The solution begins with job creation, Obama said. And he ticked off steps that Congress and the administration have taken, or are planning, including increases in food stamp benefits and $85 million Congress just freed up through an appropriations bill to experiment with feeding more children during the summer, when subsidized school breakfasts and lunches are unavailable.”
5. Broader Strategy Urged to Combat Hunger in U.S.
“Just one day after a federal report revealed that 1 in 7 U.S. families struggled to get enough to eat last year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urged lawmakers to reauthorize school nutrition programs that help feed the nation's schoolchildren.
Appearing before the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee on Tuesday, Vilsack said the child nutrition programs provide an opportunity to fight child hunger. A USDA report released Monday said 49 million people experienced what the government calls "food insecurity" in 2008.
"They had to cut the size of their meals, skip meals or even go whole days without food at some time during the year," Vilsack said. "This is simply unacceptable in a nation as wealthy and developed as the United States."
In the 2010 budget, President Obama has proposed an additional $10 billion over 10 years for programs to provide meals and improve child nutrition.”
“The USDA says this is the highest level of food insecurity since the agency began tracking statistics in 1995, and there's no question that the economy is to blame...
“There's been some indication or talk about a recovery in the economy. However, we're not seeing that right now. It's going to be a while, I think, before families see that"[, said Pam Irvine, President and CEO, Southwestern Virginia Second Harvest Food Bank.]
[James Weill, president of FRAC, said] “the USDA report on food security also shows that while the economy was doing well earlier in the decade, poorer families didn’t share in that. Then when the recession came “It just pushed 13 million families over the edge into food insecurity. So that’s a measure both of how bad the recession is, but also a measure of how vulnerable their situation was before the recession started.””
7. Hunger in Colorado drops as it rises nationally
“"It’s good news, bad news," said Kathy Underhill, executive director of the Colorado Coalition to End Hunger.
She said the overall decrease [in Colorado’s hunger numbers] was encouraging and probably the result of a stable economy during part of the three-year period. However, she said, the increase in serious cases reflects acute nutrition problems, such as adult family members skipping meals so their children could eat.
She said the report pre-dates the recession.
"The reports we're getting is the number of people needing food has gone up 30 to 40 percent this year," Underhill said.”
“Mary Lou Langenhop, president and chief executive officer of the Children's Hunger Alliance, said the report shows the beginning of the recession in Ohio. "The jump is a reflection of the economy," she said.
"We are seeing this in increases in families applying for free and reduced-price lunches; we are seeing this in significant increases in kids that showed up at summer feeding sites; we're seeing it in the number of people who are applying for food stamps; and the number of people showing anywhere food is available."
Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks, predicted that the numbers will be worse next year when more of the impact of the recession is reflected. "[T]he economy has significantly weakened and there are likely many more people struggling with hunger than this report states." Hamler-Fugitt said higher demand and limited financial support has caused pantries, like those her group serves, to stretch their supplies and lighten the bags of food they give out.””
“In Arizona, the numbers are almost undoubtedly worse, as the USDA uses three-year averages to compensate for limited sample sizes. As a result, the state data is an average for 2006-2008, missing much of the recession’s most recent local impact. “These troubling numbers show just how many people do not have regular access to food in Arizona,” said Ginny Hildebrand, president and CEO of the Association of Arizona Food Banks.”
“One day after a federal report listed Arkansas as having the third-highest level of hunger in the nation, the Senate agriculture committee on Tuesday heard from four Arkansans who say hunger is a growing problem in their state and across the country.
Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln...chairman of the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry...and others speakers repeatedly cited the U.S. Department of Agriculture's annual report on Household Food Security, which revealed that in 2008, 17 million U.S. households, or 14.6 percent, were "food insecure" - meaning that at some time during the year, they had difficulty putting enough food on the table because of a lack of resources.” (Full article available through subscription only.)
“[USDA] Secretary Tom Vilsack called his department’s annual report on American “food insecurity” this week a “wake-up call” to take the issue of hunger seriously…But that phone’s been ringing – unanswered – for years. So now that the “wake-up call” has been sounded, what would it mean to actually take the issue of hunger seriously? Congress should increase funding and eligibility for safety-net programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - what used to be called Food Stamps - as well as child-nutrition programs like school lunch and breakfast, as well as after-school and summer food programs.
The Child Nutrition Act is up for reauthorization by Congress this year - hearings were held in the U.S. Senate yesterday. The Obama administration wants to add $1 billion to the $20 billion in the program's budget. That's a good start, but not nearly enough to deal with the worsening problem - and definitely not enough to get very far toward candidate Barack Obama's pledge to end childhood hunger by 2015.
The systemic problems that contributed to the high rate of hunger before the recession hit last fall won't go away even if unemployment goes down. They demand a systemic solution: a package of legislation that would include massive job creation, increases in the earned-income-tax credit, and - this is key - a higher minimum wage.
In these dark times, donations to food banks and soup kitchens are needed desperately, but taking the issue of hunger seriously requires a full plate of public and private efforts.”
“Referring to the increasing numbers of children who suffered the most from hunger, Philadelphia hunger expert Mariana Chilton, a Drexel University public-health professor, said: "This is a catastrophe. This is not a blip. This recession will be in the bodies of our children." [Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, said] "This report was worse even than the expectation.” Weill explained that the economic growth of the early 2000s "simply wasn't getting to people in the lower third of the economy." When the recession hit, it accelerated the pain.””
“The rise, the third straight, will undoubtedly continue this year, with a record 36.5 million people receiving food stamps in August, said Jim Weill, the president of the Food Research and Action Center.
Food insecurity was determined by a survey that asked about 44,000 households to identify hunger-risk factors, including whether they were running out of food without money to pay for more, or were unable to afford balanced meals. They also were asked if some family members skipped meals.”
“"These numbers are even worse than we anticipated," said Linda Stone, Senior Food Policy Coordinator at the Children's Alliance. “Families will go to extraordinary lengths to make sure their children get something to eat, but this report shows that more and more families can't put food on the table no matter how hard they try."”
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