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.
The food banks face a blizzard of problems — what Feeding America calls a perfect storm. Food prices are going up, adding to their costs, in part because of the high demand for commodities to create biofuels. This also means few surpluses in commodities for the federal commodities program to donate.
Food manufacturers, who partner often in an admirable way with nonprofit groups, are facing their own squeeze in the tough economy and are responding as one would expect in the market, seeking greater efficiencies, which means fewer donations. Charitable contributions are harder to come by as more Americans feel the economic squeeze. State and local governments are cutting back on social services.
And the federal government is cutting back dramatically.
Take the food stamp program (now called SNAP, which stands for supplemental nutrition assistance program) the crown jewel of the federal response after the CBS documentary in 1968. This is not a program for the comfortable; the average gross monthly income for a SNAP family is $711, and four of five participating households include a child, an elderly person or a disabled one. Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget would move the program to a block grant and cut $127 billion over 10 years.
Then there is the Emergency Food Assistance Program, the federal commodity assistance program that provides much of the food going to food banks, in some cases half or more of what the food banks give to the poor. It has declined precipitously over the past few years and is on the block for more hits as the pressure to freeze or reduce all discretionary spending increases.
There is a core concept in the Talmud called “Tzedakah,” the religious obligation to engage in charity and philanthropy, to help those who need help. We need fiscal discipline, but we cannot turn our backs on our fellow human beings.
Beyond Tzedakah, there is pragmatic self-interest. Hunger adds to obesity, as people eat less nutritious foods and more fattening foods, and to other health problems that add to our health care demands and costs.
One answer is an enhanced tax credit for businesses that donate food to nonprofits. Another is to reconsider the steep cuts in these budgets at the worst possible time.
And for all of us who can, it should also mean opening up our checkbooks a little more for organizations such as Feeding America, Share Our Strength, the Capital Area Food Bank, So Others Might Eat, Martha’s Table, Bread for the City, the Central Union Mission and others here in Washington, D.C., and around the country that are laboring to feed those in need.
Norman Ornstein is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.