By MARK PATTISON, CNS | Published April 22, 2004
It is one of American society’s great ironies that in a land where obesity is a multibillion-dollar health issue, and television programs like “Extreme Makeover” and “The Swan” dabble in liposuction and tummy tucks as a matter of course, hunger remains a persistent and growing problem.
In 2002, the last year for which full statistics are available, Catholic Charities USA provided food services to 4.69 million people through food banks, pantries, soup kitchens, home-delivered meals and other services.
Bread for the World, which issued its annual report on domestic and international hunger issues April 14, noted that hunger and “food insecurity,” the uncertainty over being able to obtain safe and nutritious food in a socially acceptable way, affected nearly 35 million people—including 13 million children—in 2002. It was the third year in a row the figure had increased, after a steady downward trend that started in 1995.
The good news in the report is that the number of people actually experiencing hunger—having to go without meals—dipped from 3.9 percent of the population in 1995 to 3.5 percent in 2002.
Asked whether he thought the glass was half-full or half-empty with regard to hunger in the United States, the Rev. David Beckmann, a Lutheran minister who is Bread for the World’s president, replied: “It’s mostly empty. … I think it’s pretty scandalous.”
“The most direct way for the U.S. government to help reduce hunger in the United States is to improve and expand the federal nutrition programs,” said the report, titled “Are We on Track to End Hunger?” One way to do that, Rev. Beckmann said, would be to allow more schools eligible to provide free and low-cost meals during the school year to keep furnishing those meals during summer vacation months, when students are at greater risk of going hungry.
Holy Cross Brother David Andrews, head of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, agreed that U.S. hunger is growing, and “paradoxically, it’s in food-producing areas,” he said. “That’s kind of shocking.”
He told Catholic News Service that farm families already send their children to a year-round school meal program “so they can have three meals a day.” In many rural areas, he added, 75 percent of the students come from families poor enough to qualify for such a program.
Another help, according to the Bread for the World report, would be to advertise eligibility for federal food programs, like food stamps. “Barely half of people who are eligible for food stamps actually use them,” it said. “Cultural and systemic barriers are keeping many people out of this important program.”
The typical food stamp benefit is only about 80 cents per person per meal, said Peter Eisinger, a professor of urban politics and economic development policy at Wayne State University in Detroit. Eisinger, in an essay featured in the report, also noted that about one-fourth of America’s food is thrown out by processors, restaurants, farmers and households.
Bread for the World is part of a new coalition called the Alliance to End Hunger, which seeks to cut hunger levels in half by 2010 and to amass the political will to make it happen. The coalition’s members come from religious bodies, charities, labor unions and other nonprofits for whom hunger and related issues are part of their mission.
“To end hunger, the United States must make it possible for everyone to receive a livable income,” the report said.
The federal poverty line for a family of three last year was $15,260—which represents a wage, paid weekly, of about $7.34 an hour for a 40-hour work week. But to afford the national average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment or house last year, a family needed to make $15.21 an hour, or more than twice the income at poverty level.
The report profiled the household of Larry Dye and Miriam Delgado of Lafayette, Ind. To help provide necessities for their three children, Dye, 21, donates plasma once a month for $25. “I don’t like doing it that much because it wears me out,” he said.
Bread for the World is also a member of the National Anti-Hunger Organizations. The group said in its Millennium Declaration to End Hunger in America, issued last year: “Emergency feeding programs alone cannot end hunger. They cannot reach the scale essential to address the desparate need many people face.”
Catholic Charities USA’s Sharon Daly can attest to that. “There continues to be steady increases in the number of people who come to Catholic Charities looking for food,” she said. “It’s been very depressing over the past couple of years.”
The agency’s vice president for social policy added, “Some people who used to be their donors and volunteers are now looking for emergency help.”
Catholic Charities gets about 60 percent of its revenue from government grants. As governments, principally state governments, have gone through budget crises, food aid has been a common target for cuts. “When that happens, we have to lay people off and reduce services,” Daly said. “And for the people who do give, we ask them to give more.”
In addition, families who need assistance week after week—some of whom have exhausted their welfare or unemployment benefits—are being told “to not come back for a month, or two months, or even longer,” Daly said.