Food Insecurity Rising in America

Food insecurity is on the rise. In 2008, 14.6 percent of U.S. households fell into the food-insecure category at some point during the year—the highest rate since the Department of Agriculture started recording stats in 1995. At the same time, legislation to improve childhood nutrition is now making its way through Congress. Last week the Senate passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which provides $4.5 billion over 10 years to bolster the government's child-nutrition programs, including school meals. The Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, a Christian nonprofit focused on ending hunger worldwide, has been closely following the legislation. He talked with senior writer Claudia Kalb. Excerpts:

What is food insecurity?
It's the kind of hunger that is typical in the U.S. A family might get SNAP the government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits or a wage check, but they still have to skimp on groceries, and they run out of food around the 20th or the 25th of the month.

So we're not talking about people starving?
There is a "very low food security" category, which is about 5 percent of the U.S. population. But the kind of hunger that's visible in Ethiopia or Bangladesh is pretty rare in the U.S. It's very rare that somebody starves to death.

But it's not rare that people go hungry.
We've got way too much hunger—more than we have had for a long time. A scandalously and dangerously high rate. This is completely unnecessary. Other countries at our income level do not put up with widespread hunger among kids.

What happens to families who suffer from food insecurity?
The main issue is this intermittent hunger. Food-insecure families also buy cheap, crummy food. Food insecurity does huge health damage, especially to little kids. When people don't get enough food, the available nutrition goes to vital organs like the lungs, but it doesn't go to the brain. So for little kids who are supposed to be learning machines, they don't hear when Mom says, "Look at this." Kindergartners might be naughty and act up or be grumpy. For adults, too, hunger is bad for your health. Statistical studies show links between food insecurity and mental illness. It's very stressful.

The Senate passed its version of the child-nutrition act last week. Now what?
The Senate's approval of the child-nutrition act opens the door to finalization of that bill in September. But the Senate proposed to take money from food stamps to help pay for better school lunches. The House's version doesn't cut food stamps, and it would do much more to strengthen summer, breakfast, and after-school programs that get meals to kids who might otherwise go hungry.

The Senate also cut food stamps to help pay for the aid-to-states bill [a $26.1 billion bill that will help states sustain Medicaid and avoid teacher cutbacks] they passed last week. I hope the House [which is expected to vote on the bill this week] will do better.

Are you at all optimistic that food insecurity can be eliminated?
Because of high unemployment, one in four U.S. kids now lives in a household that sometimes runs out of food. But Obama has outlined a feasible program to end child hunger in America by 2015. If Congress strengthens the national nutrition programs and some other programs to reduce poverty, that would moderate the impact of the recession and set the stage for rapid progress against child hunger once the economy recovers. There's also a lot that can be done at the community level, including local efforts to enroll people in programs like SNAP.