Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Problem of Hunger in America

When you love to read, the most frustrating thing is all the books you have on the 'must read' list that you already have. A close second are those books that you find out about that you 'must get' and place on the 'must read' list.
Joel Berg's, "All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?" is on that second list of frustrations.
Berg is a former USDA official with the Clinton Administration. He is a recognized leader in the areas of hunger, food insecurity and national and community service. In his new book confronts us with what is probably our country's greatest irony: the richest nation in the world with the shameful problem of people actually going hungry. He does so by examining hunger through the lives of eight people who experience real hunger.
Due to the undeniable freedom and opportunities that exist in our nation it seems unimaginable that something as basic as access to food would be a real problem. But it is.
According to Berg, "While Americans don't generally suffer from hunger each and every day, such experiences [episodes of food insecurity and actual hunger] are usually frequent and reoccurring. On average, households that are food insecure during the year know this condition in six different months during that same year. One-fifth of food-insecure households are in that state often or almost every month.
Of the 16.6 million food-insecure households, 4.0 million households, containing 11.1 million people, suffered from hunger or very low food security at least sometime during the year. In thee households, "the food intake of some household members was reduced, and their normal eating patterns was disrupted because of the households' food insecurity." On average, thee families suffered these conditions seven month out of the year."
In a Washington Post column, Berg also writes, "Last December, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported that out of 23 major American cities, 80 percent had an increase in people using emergency soup kitchens and food pantries and 43 percent had an increase in the number of homeless children. All that happened between November 2006 and November 2007.
How did the federal government respond? It didn't."

"The only federal program that provides cash to both emergency feeding programs and homelessness prevention services, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Emergency Food and Shelter Program, wasn't expanded by a penny. Even though the program enables thousands of nonprofit agencies (many of which are faith-based) to aid millions of struggling people nationwide, its budget hasn't been increased for six years. Given that costs for food and housing have skyrocketed over that time, the program has, in effect, suffered from massive cuts; the charities that depend on this money are reeling from the strain, many teetering on the verge of collapse."
Our country has operated under the philosophy that by increasing the wealth of a few, prosperity and philanthropy would trickle down out of a sense of self interest and noblese oblige, respectively. That hasn't happened. It doesn't mean the government has done nothing. It means that persistently it hasn't done enough. And the number of poor continue to grow (one estimate suggesting that the current economic crisis could cause that number burgeon to 10 million this year), and so the number of hungry.
Joel Berg was a recent guest on "Think", a locally produced Public Radio (KERA) program. This link will lead you to the audio.
In community organizing I was taught that there are issues and there are problems. Issues are broad and intractable. Problems can be solved with focus and intentionality. We've been treating
American hunger as an issue. Its about time we saw it as a big problem. A problem we can solve.

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