Disconnect on hunger

Food aid covers the symptoms but fails to treat the problem: lack of access to services

March 05, 2009|By Bill Shore

Here's a conundrum. If anti-hunger organizations like ours are really good at what we do, Americans will respond - and do the wrong thing. That's because of a widespread misunderstanding of why we still have kids who are hungry in this country.

Simply put, the problem is not a lack of food. Rather, the bigger issue is a lack of access to services. Fortunately, this is a problem that can be solved - and Maryland, to its credit, is attempting to do just that.

During holidays and economic downturns, people and businesses increase donations to food banks and soup kitchens, while society beefs up appropriations for food stamps and other public feeding programs. Both are compassionate and necessary. Neither is the right prescription for eradicating a problem that is often misdiagnosed but whose solution is tantalizingly within reach.

For 25 years, I've helped raise hundreds of millions of dollars for food banks. The emergency food assistance system provides critical resources to millions of hungry Americans, including many working families. But it is also antiquated, shortsighted and a bandage that covers the symptom but doesn't treat the problem.

The better course, supported by leaders of many food banks who also see the need for more than emergency assistance, is to build systems that ensure people won't be vulnerable in the first place. Today, a record 31 million Americans are on food stamps. Infant mortality related to food and maternal health and nutrition has once again begun to climb.

As the recession deepens and unemployment rises, more American families with children face hunger for the first time, and for the most pathetic of all possible reasons. If children are hungry, it is usually because they lack access to feeding programs that exist and work, and for which they are eligible but not enrolled. For example, although 30.5 million children receive a free school lunch - and by definition are eligible for free school breakfast - fewer than 15 million are enrolled.

Why the disconnect? Sometimes it is because of language barriers or the stigma that families experience in accepting food assistance. But more often it is because of systematic challenges over which children have no control. For example, a few summers ago, Washington, D.C.'s municipal government turned back millions of federally appropriated dollars designated for summer feeding programs because it had failed to organize the sites necessary to take the place of school breakfast and lunch when school is out. Community activists in many states have identified similar unnecessary barriers to access for other food and nutrition programs. At the same time, the recession has increased the demand for food assistance, straining cash-strapped state agencies.

In November, Maryland became the first state to advance a comprehensive strategy. Gov. Martin O'Malley announced a plan for Maryland to end childhood hunger by systematically identifying and eliminating the barriers that prevent tens of thousands of eligible children from participating in public food assistance programs. He charged the Partnership to End Childhood Hunger in Maryland (led by the Governor's Office for Children and Share Our Strength) with increasing enrollments in school lunch, school breakfast, summer feeding, food stamps, and child and adult care that would yield an additional $21 million in federal funding to help Maryland children.

In a world of byzantine and complex problems such as credit default swaps and overleveraged financial institutions, ending childhood hunger is a relatively straightforward proposition. Bipartisan public policy and the collaboration of hundreds of nonprofit anti-hunger organizations have enabled us to reach many of those low-income families so that while they may still be poor, at least they aren't hungry.

The children who are hunger's remaining victims are so voiceless and invisible that we sometimes fail to see the barriers that stand between them and access to resources. Surmounting those barriers takes more than money and new programs. It takes an effort such as Maryland is undertaking, one that the whole country needs.

Bill Shore is the founder and executive director of the national anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength. His e-mail is bshore@strength.org.

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