Seasons of hunger

November 21, 2007

In this season of bounty, there are troubling reminders of hunger in our midst that should not be acceptable. Two reports last week found that the number of hungry Americans, including children, remains about the same, which is way too many people.

And things aren't likely to get better as food, energy and housing costs are increasing while salaries remain the same or decline. Reducing hunger requires more aggressive public and private action.

The federal Department of Agriculture reported that in 2006, there was a slight increase in "food insecure" households, up from 12.59 million in 2005 to 12.65 million in 2006, or nearly 11 percent of all households. Within those households, some 35.5 million Americans were potentially suffering from hunger, up slightly from about 35.1 million in 2005.

At the same time, Second Harvest, the nation's largest hunger-relief organization, also found that 13 million American children - 18 percent - were hungry or at risk of hunger from 2003 to 2005, a proportion that has remained the same for a decade.

Some relief is likely to come from Congress, which is still debating the 2007 farm bill. While subsidies to major farm operations should be scaled back, more money should be added to nutrition programs such as emergency assistance to food banks and similar organizations. The House and Senate versions of the legislation would increase current spending of $140 million for such emergency assistance by about $100 million over the next five years; the proposed increases would be even better if they were indexed for inflation.

Although more public assistance to combat hunger is welcome, additional private efforts are also needed. The Maryland Food Bank would have to move about 89 million pounds of food a year to feed the approximately 370,000 people living at or below the poverty level in the areas of the state that it covers. Last year, the organization handled about 11 million pounds.

The difference could be significantly reduced if grocers and farmers would recapture more products that might go to waste - for example, freezing meats by the sale dates or plucking more crops from the fields before they spoil - and donate more of these saved goods to food banks or other distribution outlets.

Helping hungry people is not only a timely endeavor this week, it should be a priority for all seasons.

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