The United Nations has reported that the number of chronically hungry people worldwide is increasing at the rate of five million annually. But even here in the United States, richest of all nations, hunger and food insecurity (limited access to nutritionally adequate foods) have been steadily rising over the past few years. Such is the conclusion of the report on hunger and homelessness of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, released in December.
This annual survey gathers data on the interconnected issues of hunger and homelessness from emergency service providers in two dozen cities. The issues are interconnected because as the cost of rental housing increases, low-income families have less to spend on food. And when families and individuals lack enough income for these necessities, they face a harsh choice between paying the rent or going without adequate food. It is usually the latter that is given short shrift.
Not surprisingly, then, the mayors’ report found that requests for emergency food assistance rose by almost 20 percent last year. Sharon Daly, vice president for social policy at Catholic Charities USA, told America that its local agencies were reporting this same large increase in requests. The primary culprits remain the continuing high rate of unemployment and other employment-related problems, like jobs that pay too littleto those who are fortunate enough to have a job at all. Other causes include reduced public benefits and unnecessarily complex application procedures for food stamps.
Faced with the rise in requests, emergency food providers are sometimes unable to keep pace. This is partly because both private and corporate donations are down. Providers in Philadelphia, for example, report that instead of donating excess food products to local food banks, many companies now sell them for a modest profit. Even worse, Ms. Daly said, the very people who used to bring food baskets to church for distribution to needy parishioners and who once volunteered in soup kitchens, are now having to come and beg for a bag of groceries for their own families, because they have lost their jobs or run out of unemployment benefits. Reductions in donations have led to reductions in the amount of food distributed. Agencies in some cities, according to the mayors’ survey, report that people are regularly turned away. And in all the cities, food assistance facilities were increasingly being used not just in emergencies, but as an ordinary source of food over long periods of time.
Elderly people account for some of the sharpest increases in emergency food requestsan overall jump of 73 percent. Providers in San Antonio, Tex., for instance, reported a record increase there, and other cities cited similarly high increases. The high cost of prescription medications stands out as a primary cause, because it forces many senior citizens to choose between medication and food. As Boston agencies put it, seniors are frequently caught in the so-called treat or eat dilemma. They must choose between buying prescription drugs, needed to treat their age-related illnesses, and purchasing nutritious foods to maintain their health and strength. According to one agency in Boston, seniors cannot afford to fill their grocery bags after filling their prescriptions.
Children are especially affected, since inadequate supplies of food in their families hinder their basic growth and development. Requests made by households with children are a significant part of the overall rise in requests for emergency food. As Chicago providers noted, since overall requests have increased, the assumption is that the percentage of children needing food has also increased. Portland, Ore., found that 40 percent of the people who received emergency food boxes were under 17 years of age.
With a diminished capacity to meet the need, 87 percent of the cities in the mayors’ report expect increases in the number of requests for emergency food in 2004. But until employment opportunities improve, some steps can be taken to address the crisis. The House of Representatives has passed a 13-week extension of federal unemployment benefits. The Senate should do the same, and the president should sign it into law. Congress could also pass a supplemental appropriations bill for the emergency food and shelter program that pays for groceries for charitable organizations. These steps could help stem the rising levels of hunger and food insecurity in the United Stateslevels that run contrary to the U.S. bishops’ statement in Faithful Citizenship (October 2003)that every person has a fundamental right to...those things that allow them to live a decent life. Adequate food is among the most basic of these rights.