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Perfect Storm Puts Hunger Back on the Agenda

In 1968, CBS News ran a documentary called “Hunger in America,” which stunned large numbers of Americans who had assumed that serious malnutrition, not to mention starvation, were problems in places such as Africa, but not in the United States.

The documentary showed pictures of children — American children — dying from malnutrition. It galvanized public opinion and Congress.

Then-Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.), a member of the Agriculture Committee, was moved to call for the creation of a new Senate committee on hunger as well as for a new program to deal with the problem. He was joined in the effort by a somewhat unlikely partner, Kansas Republican Bob Dole, a strong partisan adversary of McGovern’s, but also a pre-Bush version of a compassionate conservative.

Dole later said, “What really impressed me were the field hearings, and you saw it firsthand and you knew it wasn’t something some network maybe dreamed up or whatever and found some isolated cases. I think we began to understand it was widespread and needed to be addressed.”

That was 43 years ago. Sadly, CBS could do a new version of that documentary coming to the same, if not more dire and depressing, conclusions. Hunger is here, in a real and palpable way, exacerbated by our tough economic conditions and persistent unemployment, but worsened as well by the high cost of food, especially nutritious food.

The new census data on the number of Americans in poverty are jolting enough; the fact is that other surveys show the hunger problem extends to many individuals and families who have jobs and bring in incomes, but are, in the parlance, “food insecure,” finding that for many weeks of the year, their budgets just don’t stretch enough to put adequate food on the table for their families.

The Department of Agriculture estimates that 50 million Americans, including one in four children — overall, 17 percent of our population — are food insecure. If your family’s budget is tight, higher food costs and rising gas prices can put you in a hellish squeeze.

For food banks, churches and other nonprofit groups such as Share Our Strength, the demand is up sharply over the past four years, and especially over this past year.

Some conservatives point to more detailed information on those who meet the census definition of poverty to suggest that the problem is exaggerated — a large number have multiple TVs, video game systems, cellphones and other accoutrements that we don’t associate with hardship.

But few people who don’t desperately need it are going to wait in line at a food bank or go to a shelter as a great way to take advantage of the system. I hear from people who run the local food banks that they are seeing a growing number of people asking for food who not long ago gave them donations.

Feeding America, a national network of food banks, distributed 2.6 billion pounds of food in fiscal 2009 — that number went up by 500 million pounds the next year, and an additional 200 billion pounds to 3.3 billion so far this year.

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