Hunger here in the richest nation in the world? Impossible, one might think. But the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ annual Hunger and Homelessness Survey makes it clear that hunger and food insecurity (not always having access to enough food to meet basic needs) not only exist, but are on the rise. The increase is reflected in the fact that the two dozen cities surveyed found that requests for emergency food at pantries and similar sites had risen on average by 12 percent. In many cases, moreover, the requests were not just for short-term emergency needs, but also to fill ongoing food deficits. For some that means filling in the gap when the monthly food stamp allotment runs out, often by the third week of the month. Emergency food providers also said that in almost half the cases, they either had to turn people away or else apportion less than what they had previously provided. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, an estimated 38 million people live in homes marked by food insecurity.
Some cities reported jumps of over 30 percent for emergency food assistance. In virtually all the cities, the survey reported that low-income people have to make painful choices: whether to pay for rent, medicine, utilities or food. Food is being pushed farther down the list of priorities, reported providers in one city. Another respondent put it succinctly: More demand and fewer resources. And yet many of those living in food-insecure households are employed. Phoenix, Ariz., for example, reported that 38 percent of recipient households had at least one adult person working and nevertheless experienced hunger and food insecurity. A survey by the Greater Chicago Food Depository, done in conjunction with America’s Second Harvest, discovered that almost half its clients live in the suburbs. Hunger and food insecurity, in other words, are found not only in inner-city neighborhoods.
Participation in the federal government’s food stamp programan entitlement program for low-income peoplehas grown steadily over the past few years. A sad footnote is that almost 40 percent of eligible persons throughout the country are not enrolled. In New York City alone, an estimated 700,000 eligible people do not take part in the program. As a result, New York state ranks 36th in the country in the percentage of eligible people participatinga reflection of the Giuliani era, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that caseworkers illegally denied food stamps to thousands of poor people. An often underestimated consequence of lagging participation is the loss of billions of federal dollars nationwide that, when translated into food stamps, could boost local economies through their use in local stores and supermarkets.
Unnecessary barriers make access to the program difficult. In some parts of the country, the sheer complexity of the process can be a deterrent, especially for people with limited education or for whom English is not the first language. New York (along with Arizona, California and Texas) require fingerprinting, a procedure that, according to one anti-hunger advocate, makes applicants feel like criminals. Other obstacles include long hours spent in food stamp offices to establish eligibility, a special hardship for low-wage workers who must take time from their jobs to apply for the program. This may result in pay cuts. Frequent recertification also presents problems. Iowa, however, has taken positive steps to simplify its own process, with an aggressive outreach effort, a toll-free number and recertification required only twice a year. Iowa also allows the use of electronic cards, which enables users to avoid the stigma often associated with paper coupons.
Despite the nutritional benefits to low-income people who use the various federal programs, the president’s FY 2007 budget is proposing cuts that would weaken these benefits. Ellen Vollinger, legal director for the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center told America that the projected cuts represent several steps backward. One backward step is a measure that would limit states’ ability to provide food stamps to 300,000 people in working families that are low-income but receive cash welfare benefits. Another negative change would entirely eliminate funding for the Commodity Supplemental Food Program. Currently, this program assists almost half a million seniors with monthly food packages containing nutrient-rich food supplements. Low-income seniors are already at risk of food insecurity because of rising medical costs that can reduce the amount of money available for food.
Congress should firmly resist cutting back on federal nutrition programs and focus instead on strengthening them in such a way as to eliminate hunger and guarantee food security in the United States.