January 01, 2010

Ending Childhood Hunger by 2015

by Jim Weill

It is always shocking to hear how many Americans cannot afford enough healthy food to get through the month—36.2 million people lived in such “food insecure” households in 2007, the last year for which official data have been released—but it is especially troubling when you consider how many of the hungry are children. More than 12 million children—nearly 17 percent of all children in the country—live in homes that are struggling with hunger, hindering them from growing, learning, and succeeding in school.

During his presidential campaign, President Obama pledged to end childhood hunger in America by 2015. It is an ambitious pledge and one that he is clearly standing behind. According to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the president instructed him that “what I want you to do first, the most important thing in this job, is to make sure America’s kids are well fed.”

By 2015, this country should be a place where all children have the adequate and nutritious food they need to build healthy bodies and strong minds. We have only six years to reach this goal of ending childhood hunger, and it will not be easy. But this is a goal that the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) believes the United States can and must reach.

It also is a goal that the American people fully support. Polls have consistently found that voters do not think the nation is doing enough to solve hunger, and they want government and political leaders to address the hunger problem and make sure that everyone in the country has enough to eat. (A compendium of several years of public opinion research—undertaken for FRAC by a bipartisan team of Peter D. Hart Associates and McLaughlin and Associates—can be found at www.frac.org/pdf/hungerpoll08_/fullreport.pdf. A summary can be found at www.frac.org/pdf/hungerpoll08_/summary.pdf.) And the goal of ending hunger has had strong bipartisan support dating to the 1970s, when senators George McGovern and Robert Dole first tackled the nation’s hunger problem on a bipartisan basis.

Achieving the 2015 goal will require the nation to strengthen policies so that schools and other institutions that care for children, and especially low-income parents, are better able to provide children an adequate, healthy diet. Parents or other caregivers must have the resources to purchase and prepare adequate, healthy meals for the family. Schools, child-care centers and homes, and after-school and summer sites—the places where children are learning, playing, developing, and being cared for—must meet children’s nutritional needs when they are in those settings. Children should be treated with respect, so that help is given in a way that does not identify a child’s socioeconomic status or carry any stigma.

FRAC has identified seven essential strategies for reaching the goal of ending childhood hunger by 2015. They focus both on improving and expanding the nation’s nutrition programs, and bolstering the economy and strengthening other supports for families in order to move more people out of poverty, the root cause of hunger in this country.

First, we must restore economic growth and rebuild an economy that creates jobs with better wages for lower-income workers across the nation.

Second, we must lift the incomes of low-earning workers by increasing the minimum wage and strengthening refundable tax credits and other supports that help make work pay.

Third, we must strengthen the SNAP/Food Stamp Program by making monthly benefits adequate for a healthy diet (right now they are about one-quarter below the government’s recommended Lost-Cost Food Plan). Congress also should expand eligibility to a broader range of hungry families.

Fourth, we must strengthen child nutrition programs to ensure that many more children receive the benefits of a good school breakfast and lunch, as well as healthy nutrition in other important developmental settings, such as child care and after-school and summer programs. These programs are due to be reconsidered in Congress next year, and Congress must produce improvements that will make a real difference in the lives of our children.

Fifth, the entire federal government must be engaged in ending childhood hunger. This should be a government-wide priority, and meeting it will require focus not just from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (which runs the large nutrition programs), but also from such agencies as the departments of Health and Human Services and Education, and the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Sixth, we also must work at the state and local level to make sure that nutrition programs are being used as fully as possible. Nationally, only about forty-six low-income children receive school breakfast and only seventeen low-income children receive summer meals for every one hundred who receive school lunch. States, counties, cities, schools, and nonprofits can make much better use of the programs.

Seventh, we must make sure all families have convenient access to reasonably priced, healthy food. Let’s get healthy food resources into what are now “food deserts” in many rural areas and poor city neighborhoods.

Attaining the 2015 goal is certainly possible, but it will require using every day of the next six years to adopt and implement smart strategies. The Obama administration takes the 2015 commitment seriously and it is incumbent on the rest of us—members of Congress, governors, other public officials, advocates, business, religious leaders, labor, and service providers—to do so as well. Ending child hunger will require all of us coming together so we can move forward and take every step needed to reach a nation of well-fed children.

Jim Weill

Jim Weill is the president of the Food Research and Action Center, the leading national nonprofit organization working to improve public policies and public-private partnerships to eradicate hunger and undernutrition in the United States.