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January 01, 2010

Ending Childhood Hunger in America

by Jim Weill

Preventing child hunger is possible; so is ending it. When compared to developing countries, where a child dies every five seconds of malnutrition, it may seem like the United States has no hunger problem worth mentioning. But just because hunger is not as visible in this country does not mean that there is no problem: The more than 17 million children who experience hunger and food insecurity (defined as lack of access to enough food for an active and healthy life) in the United States are invisible precisely because of the American public’s lack of understanding of the nature of hunger, and our policymakers’ unwillingness to tackle hunger as a national priority.

What will it take to end hunger in America? We must make ending hunger a national goal that we all share, and hold ourselves accountable as a part of the solution. We have tolerated hunger for too long.

Rates of food insecurity in the United States, as measured by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), have spiked dramatically since the beginning of the economic recession in 2008. Since 1995, between 30 to 35 million people every year in the United States had experienced food insecurity, now that number stands at 49 million, or 14.6 percent of the total U.S. population. This alarming increase, which should indicate a national emergency, has gone largely unnoticed by the public and garnered little response from policy makers. Meanwhile, those who are experiencing food insecurity cannot afford to wait. Households with children experience rates of food insecurity that are double those of households without children, while black and Latino families experience food insecurity at rates that are three times higher than those of white families. These disparities highlight the fact that hunger is not simply an issue of food, but a symptom of other systemic human rights violations. Not only are hunger and food insecurity painful, and often shameful, experiences for those forced to suffer through them, but food insecurity among families is also a serious public health problem. Food insecurity among children is associated with fair and poor child health, with high hospitalization rates, and with truncated social, emotional, and cognitive development. Among school-age kids, food insecurity affects their school performance, their math and reading test scores, and their ability to pay attention and behave; among teenagers, it is associated with suicidal ideation and depression. Food insecurity is not an innate congenital or genetic disorder, nor is it an infectious agent that strikes at random. Nor is it inevitable—the United States produces enough food to feed every one of its citizens. Food insecurity is completely man-made and entirely preventable. The way to prevent and to treat child hunger is to adopt a human rights approach to food.

By a human rights approach to food and nutrition, we mean that access to enough healthy food is a fundamental human right of all people, everywhere, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, gender, or national origin. Conversely, this approach means that we must characterize food insecurity and hunger as unacceptable and a violation of fundamental human rights.

The right to food means that everyone must have reasonable opportunities to secure enough food for themselves or their family. Fulfilling the right to food does not mean providing food; rather, it means ensuring that all people have access to the opportunities that enable them to purchase and/or grow the food they need, and that there is a system in place to catch those who are unable, either temporarily or permanently, to procure food for themselves.

The United States is one of only two countries that have yet to acknowledge that access to food is a fundamental human right, even as we are reminded at every meal that food is something we cannot live without. While this case of American exceptionalism should be remedied, and the United States should go on record as agreeing that all people everywhere should have access to food, our country’s failure to uphold international standards should not stop the rest of us from taking the reigns and ending hunger in America once and for all.

To end hunger, we need to take immediate and specific steps. We need both government intervention and our individual participation to treat hunger as the emergency and human rights violation that it really is.

A national strategy to end hunger creates a structural process for agencies, organizations, corporations, and citizens to work toward ensuring access to enough affordable, nutritious food. This strategy involves four steps.

The first step is to understand the scope and demographics of hunger in this country. Such mapping is already being done by the USDA, which looks at food security rates by race, ethnicity, gender, household type, and region. An understanding of the different factors that affect food insecurity will aid us in expanding nutrition programs to reach those who are most vulnerable: children, female-headed households, immigrants, the elderly, the poor, and other marginalized groups.

The second step is to improve government agency coordination and cooperation. Hunger is not only an issue that concerns the USDA, and the complex causes of hunger require that a solution come not only from the USDA. The Department of Health, the Department of Education, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development must be involved to address the multiple social issues that create hunger and that are associated with its effects—poverty, deprivation, poor health, and low educational attainment.

The third step is to improve accountability. Improving accountability will require a clear allocation of responsibilities and time frames for the progressive realization of ending hunger. The U.S. government must first make it very clear to the American public what the actual rates of food insecurity are. They must establish clear benchmarks and targets, but those targets are useful only if actions are taken to meet them. Few people actually know what the food insecurity numbers are, because the national rates of food insecurity are released with little media attention and are not readily accessible, nor are they clearly understood by the American public. This lack of widespread knowledge about the rates of food insecurity and hunger in the United States allows our legislators to continue to ignore the problem of hunger.

The fourth step is to ensure the adequate public participation in the development, implementation, and evaluation of a national strategy to end hunger. This participation must include all of us. All of “us” includes the most food-insecure sectors of the population. People who are hungry know better than anyone what the causes of hunger are, and how that hunger affects their lives and their families. One such example of participation is Witnesses to Hunger (—a project in which forty women are speaking out through multiple forms of media to educate the public, the press, and policymakers about the experience of hunger and their ideas for change.

Clearly, a national plan demands all of our participation. Our participation is one of the greatest values of our democracy, and our greatest challenge. We should participate in ending hunger not as an act of charity, but as an act of our own humanity. Imagine, 12 to 17 million children no longer invisible and no longer food insecure, because all of them are embraced as part of our human family.


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.