Pope Benedict XVI called hunger “the most cruel and concrete sign of poverty” and promised that the church will always strive “to defeat hunger” in his address in November 2009 to the United Nations-sponsored Summit on Food Security. The church is practicing what the pope preached about feeding the hungry. Catholic international hunger relief missions save lives all around the globe. And what Catholic nonprofit organizations are doing to alleviate hunger in the United States is equally impressive and, sadly, no less needed.
This summer, for instance, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, led by its Nutritional Development Services, will provide over a million meals to Philadelphia’s most disadvantaged children. During the coming academic year, it will supply over nine million more meals to poor children.
The organization receives most of its bare-bones funding from government and so must cope with rules, regulations and red tape. Yet the remarkable women who lead N.D.S., the agency’s other staff and volunteers and the Catholics who work for kindred programs in other cities somehow manage year in and year out to help feed hungry children with Christ-like care and compassion.
That is the good news. The bad news, however, is that despite the church’s antihunger efforts, despite similar efforts by many other major religious bodies and despite the federal government’s decades-old food assistance programs—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps, and the National School Breakfast and National School Lunch programs—the United States is losing ground in the war against domestic hunger.
In the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture household food security survey, it is reported that 49.1 million Americans in 2008 were without enough to eat at some point in the previous year, up from 35.5 million in 2006.
Worse, severe and recurrent food deprivation, or what the U.S.D.A. terms “food insecurity with hunger,” has been growing at an alarming rate among the young. Between 2006 and 2008 the number of children in that category more than doubled from about 430,000 to 1,077,000. That’s over a million children who, in U.S.D.A.-speak, were “subject to reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns” because their “household lacked money and other resources for food.”
Some doubt that there is real human hardship behind the U.S.D.A.’s hard data on mass hunger among America’s children. They would do well to read a new book by Janet Poppendieck, Free for All: Fixing School Food in America (Univ. of California Press, 2010).
Poppendieck, a sociologist at Hunter College, notes that while the federal government tries to avoid the term hunger, just talk “to any school cafeteria manager in a low-income neighborhood about the rush of children for breakfast on Monday mornings after a long weekend,” and he or she “will convince you that hunger by any other name hurts just as much.”
Poppendieck says that too many poor children “eat a meal seasoned with shame”; and in school cafeterias and stores flanked by vending machines, too many kids favor junk food fare that politically powerful corporations peddle alongside the federal programs’ nutritionally regulated meals.
“It is time,” Poppendieck counsels, “to eliminate the means test” and “to move to universal free school meals.” This would also “benefit middle-income children for whom healthy meals would become the norm.”
Amen. In the early 1990s, the U.S.D.A. experimented with universal free school meals in Philadelphia’s schools. The U.S. General Accounting Office analyzed the results: participation increased dramatically and, with streamlined administration, money was actually saved.
Poppendieck estimates that it would cost an additional $12 billion a year to implement universal free school meals. Even if it cost double that amount, including additional funding for summer meal programs, it would be a wise and worthy public investment. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops should champion Poppendieck’s proposal, and we all should pray that a million hungry children get their daily bread.