Going to Bed Hungry

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The United States is the world’s wealthiest nation, yet we still have families and children who don’t have enough to eat. We caught up with Joel Berg of NYC’s Coalition Against Hunger to learn what it means to be food insecure and what we can do to ensure that no child goes to bed hungry.

Theresa Riley: What does it mean to be “food insecure”? How many American children now live in “food insecure” households?

Joel Berg

Joel Berg: Food insecure means families don’t have enough money to regularly obtain all the food they need. It means they are rationing food and skipping meals. It means parents are going without food to feed their children. It means kids are missing breakfasts. And, ironically, because healthy food is usually more expensive than junk food, and because healthier options often don’t even exist in low-income neighborhoods, it means that food insecurity and obesity are flip sides of the same malnutrition coin, so food insecurity may actually increase a family’s chance of facing obesity and diabetes. Fifty million Americans, including nearly 17 million children, now live in food insecure homes.

Riley: What are some of the consequences for children who go to bed hungry and malnourished?

A student serves up desert to classmates during lunch at the People for People Charter School, Monday, Feb. 25, 2013, in Philadelphia.

Berg: In general, because America does have a federal safety net of SNAP (formerly called Food Stamps) and the National School Lunch Program, which benefit tens of millions of low-income Americans, Americans rarely starve to death the way people do in some developing countries. Yet the levels of food insecurity and food rationing we have in America still have dire consequences for the people who suffer from it – and for the nation as a whole.

Hunger in the world’s wealthiest nation is not only morally unacceptable, it also costs the U.S. economy at least $167.5 billion per year, in large part because of its negative impact on children, according to the Center for American Progress.

Food insecure children experience a broad range of problems that affect their health, development, well-being and school performance. Poorly nourished children have lower school test scores and require far more long-term health care spending. Hunger also reduces the productivity of workers, which reduces their earnings, which, in turn, reduces their ability to purchase nutritious food for their children. In this vicious cycle, malnourished children do not do as well in school, are more likely to drop out, and are less likely to go to college than children who are properly nourished. Consequently, malnourished children earn less as adults and are less able to help America build a 21st-century high-skills economy. In order for the nation to build the best public education system in the world, bring down health care costs, and rebuild our economy, we simply must end hunger.

Riley: What is the best way to reduce hunger among working families?

Berg: The president and Congress need to work to fundamentally change U.S. economic polices to focus not just on creating wealth on Wall Street, but also on creating living wage jobs across the nation. Congress should also agree to the president’s plan to raise the minimum wage to nine dollars and hour, and then index that to inflation.

Additionally, both parties should expand the earned income tax credit that aids low-income working families and combine all federal nutrition assistance programs into one program, with one application, and raise the eligibility to twice the poverty line, to ensure that more working families are able to benefit from SNAP and school meals.

Riley: You recently wrote a report that advised President Obama how he could reverse America’s worsening hunger metrics. There were a lot of recommendations about executive orders in it. Why was that? Does Congress lack innovative ideas for dealing with hunger?

Berg: The sad reality is that the only so-called hunger ideas coming out of the House majority these days would actually increase hunger by slashing funding for effective programs. Their claim that they are fighting poverty by taking away funding from poverty programs makes as much sense as someone claiming they are fighting drought by taking away water.

There used to be strong bi-partisan support for federal efforts to fight hunger. President Richard Nixon and Senator Bob Dole played historic roles in building the federal safety net. Unfortunately, the modern Republican Party, especially in the House of Representatives, has turned its back on that tradition. A few years ago, a very modest bill to improve school meals, which actually paid for the school meals improvements by slashing SNAP, and didn’t cost the American people an extra penny, passed the U.S. Senate unanimously. But the vast majority of House Republicans voted against it. Even those that claim to be “pro-life,” voted to slash the WIC program, which provides nutrition assistance to pregnant women and their infants.

I hope that someday soon the American people will elect a House majority that is serious about ending, rather than increasing, hunger. Until then, I am afraid the best hopes for significant progress now rests with the White House. Yet even this White House needs to be pushed on this issue, and I hope the American people do push.

Riley: Will sequestration have any impact on the WIC program that feeds children, infants and pregnant mothers?

Berg: Most of the WIC funding was quietly restored by a more recent budget vote. But the sequestration is still slashing funds to soup kitchens, food banks, food pantries, and homelessness prevention efforts. A truly appalling exercise in gutlessness all around.

Riley: The number of students participating in school lunch programs has risen significantly in recent years. With summer just around the corner, where can children go for a nourishing meal?

Berg: There is a federal program that funds meals for low-income children over the summer called the Summer Food Service Program. Many sites for these meals are at parks, recreation centers and summer education programs, but as cities and states cut back on their spending – often in response to federal cut-backs – they reduce these summer programs and thus reduce summer meals sites. It is no wonder then, according to the Food Research and Action Center, that in 2011 only one in seven children who received school lunch received summer meals.

Riley: What can people do to help others who are hungry in their local communities?

Berg: People can sign our online pledge to ask the president and Congress to enact the president’s pledge to end U.S. child hunger by 2015. They can also inform themselves by seeing the new documentary on hunger in America, A Place at the Table, in which I have role. Lastly, to find out how they can most effectively volunteer, they can utilize our comprehensive online resources at www.hungervolunteer.org. Every American can – and should – make a difference.

Joel Berg leads the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, which represents the more than 1,200 nonprofit soup kitchens and food pantries in New York City and the more than 1.5 million low-income New Yorkers who are food insecure. He is a Senior Fellow at the Center For American Progress and the author of the book All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?

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  • Peter Gatliff

    Hunger the best breeding ground for Revolution.

  • Faroutdc

    Let’s also add seniors to the scenario who are forced to make the choice between medication or food, or receive meals that lack nutritional value. We’re all in this together.

  • Anonymous

    They are hungry because the rightwing Party of the Plutocrats and their propagandists just don’t give a damn. Try to do something about it, and you are at once accused of being a socialist or worse, a communist. Their philosophy is that all of us should wave the flag and fend for ourselves.

  • Anonymous

    I have very little confidence that our government will change anything for the better. Hopefully I am wrong.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patricia-Stidham-Burns/100003119369128 Patricia Stidham-Burns

    I wish Congress and the President had to go two days with nothing to eat but a few scraps here and there and see how they feel! Better yet let them live only on SNAP for a month or two and see how well they could feed their families! They need a hard life’s lesson!

  • http://www.facebook.com/dryheaves.daily Dryheaves Daily

    When you have lost everything you have nothing else to lose.

  • Atypical1

    First off, I DO donate food and used items to charities that directly help the poor so don’t say I do not care or help. Here’s what no poor person ever admits, though: Many children are poor because single, uneducated women bring them into their dead-end worlds. I’ve also known countless adults who made foolish financial choices during their working years and now face grim futures. Now hate on me all you want because although I came from nothing and have no expensive college diplomas I’m sitting here at 58 with a house full of food and a net worth of 2.1 million dollars. No, I’m not special and I’m not bragging, I’m just proof that ordinary people can make the choices and effort to become secure and (God, forbid) wealthy.

  • steven sanders

    I believe I understand. Your rich and you give items you don’t want and a little food to charities so that makes you a good person. Women who get pregnant outside of marriage should have abortions, or if they choose to have babies the children can be left to suffer because it’s the mothers fault. Society has no obligation to collectively help them. We can ignore the teaching of the Bible in that regard as well as basic humanity because we’re not our brothers keeper. No, I don’t hate you. I pity you. I am disabled and I make daily decisions between food and other necessities, and I do sometimes go hungry. But I’m rich compared to the pauperism of your soul.

  • Lisalulu

    First of all – you are 58 and grew up in a very different society that we have today. You don’t say anything about how you earned your money – for all we know you married into money. Regardless – you are not grateful, humble or compassionate – you are judgmental and arrogant. You forget that not all poor people are young single mothers: they are the sick, the disabled, the elderly, the 40+ person who lost a job. Just because life worked out for you as defined by you (wealth) doesn’t mean you are any better – in fact you are worse since you lack empathy.

  • Lisalulu

    Great post!

  • btxusa

    It’s time to separate the food stamp program from the Department of Agriculture. That’s like “the fox guarding the hen house” when we allow those who represent the producers control the funding for consumers of their products. Food Stamps should be under the purview of the Deparment of Health, so THEY can educate along with making sure those who need the funds get them. That way, what is spent on AGRICULTURE will be separate and very clearly revealed how much goes to the producers and how much goes to the consumers.

    In the same vein, free and reduced lunches in schools should be dispensed by the Department of Education and tied to nutrition education of youngsters curriculum.

  • Janet Warren

    And if they were not as wise as you they deserve to starve or wait for your hand out. Tell it to Jesus honey because no amount of charitable giving will let you off the hook when it comes to judging others as as far as He is concerned. Did you marry the 2.1 million, inherit it, or rob a bank because in America if you don’t have a college education you could expect a weekly salary of about $652? Tthat is the average of men and women so being a woman you could have expected an average yearly salary of about $25,000 in today’s dollars. Most people can barely live on that. Investing is another way to have money. Our 401k is making us rich on paper, but it will not be enough to live on when we retire if we live very long. I am a 59 year old female with two children and two borrowed children that I have cared for (not legally adopted just put through high school in one case and college in the other.) I guess I too could have been rich in money if I had had no children, or I had left children that were not my own to their own devices. My point is your getting rich is a matter of good fortune and probably choices that involved your self interest above other things you might value. Not everyone is so blessed. Some of us have children, get cancer, or MS or some other horrible and expensive disease that takes all our extra money that might have been invested, but wasn’t. Yes, I could have taken control of my life by refusing to have children or help anyone but myself, but I wish to be rich in Heaven not here. I am happy for your good fortune. I hope your luck holds out.

  • Snap to taxpayer

    Cut congress and Senate salaries. As well as Presidential salary now to help fund the sequester shortages in food programs. Cut their provided healthcare
    And make them pay out of pocket for insurance. Oh but we can’t do that because they vote on their salaries and give themselves raises. Nice!

    Atypical 1 – I lived on food stamps during the Carter/Reagan years briefly as a child. We made the smartest choices we could, the reason we ended up on food stamps? My. Father abused my mother, she could not stay in the marriage after 13 years of trying! She had 3kids, she worked as a waitress to allow flexibility to manage 3 kids. Schedules. My father was not dead beat he paid. His 100 very month to support his 3 kids, however two homes to support were required and he was a Blue collar hard working mason Contractor however hard winters and poor building market due to high home interest rates hurt his income. He filled the freezer with meat he hinted or trapped in the winter and heated the home with firewood he busted his back cutting and stacking all year whole lifting block to being home some income.

    I learned moving from a single home family with fighting and violence to a split home seriously impacted financially. Two electric bills. Etc. that as poor as we baca,e it was better than living with fear and violence erupting all the time.

    I went to work paying taxes at 14 making minimum wage while I attended school to help my family and mother by buying some clothing for myself and little brother. However food stamps fed us so my mother could keep the electric on to study and live with. I have been very fortunate working hard to improve my position and work hard and waited to marry and have children until I could support them. Marrying an employes man, we both worked de net jobs and we watched his airline job disappear, and then he went back to college to retrain for electronics to secure a good job and salary, and all the jobs went to China and Mexico

  • Snap to taxpayer

    So when two good paying careers to support a family were impacted by the government and economy suddenly, we had to recoup each time, living on tight budgets and using our nest egg,I worked full time while raising my child. I know today at any time we could have been homeless if our luck did not change. I see many single moms who work hard and still have to use SNAP as the salary does not cover the cost of living. Women are not paid equally as men, Yes and their kids are directed to go to college and be more successful. It took me 45 years to get comfortable and I now at any time I could be laid off and the bubble bursts again. I have retirement stock funds that could drop like the depression. I believe the good Lord tests us through life, to remind us of how we should behave, with your comments it would not surprise me that your test is about to come! If I starved as a child I would not be here today to pay the taxes that also help others from starving or volunteering and donating my time to help other children succeed. So instead of bragging about your net worth, maybe you should get out and teach others how you accomplished it and see the hurdles they may have that you did not.

  • Patricia Stidham-Burns

    I am not bragging about my net worth. I too have and at this time rely on SNAP to help feed my family. I have lived through many rough times as a child and as an adult. I have always worked hard as does my husband. The recession hit us VERY hard. I try my best to educate people about SNAP. That it is not a program for lazy people to sit around and do nothing. Thank you for your story. I hope other people read and it gives them a clearer understanding than apparently my original post intended. I work hard for the poor. I write and call my elected officials both at the State and Federal levels and discuss this very problem. Than you again….

  • holly

    Some people get degrees and lose their jobs after having children, then even low-paying jobs don’t want to hire them because they’re overqualified and made twice what managers make for years. Unemployment runs out and what should happen to their families? Do they starve? The economy is not a good place for being of child-bearing age right now. Tuition rates rose significantly since someone your age was a student so they have more in loans that you had. I see your point that there are a lot of people out there who have children at an inappropriate time in their life either too young or with someone they were not intending to be with long-term, but don’t fool yourself that people who did everything “right” can’t end up in tough circumstances.