Hungry in America

Hungry in America

Washington no longer feels it ought to insure that everyone has enough to eat.


I have no heart for somebody who starves his folks. —George W. Bush discussing North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and US food donations on CNN (January 2, 2003)

Ellen Spearman lives in a trailer at the edge of Morrill, Nebraska, a tiny dusty town near the Wyoming state line. A few years ago she was a member of the working poor, earning $9.10 an hour at a local energy company. Then she got sick and had four surgeries for what turned out to be a benign facial tumor. New owners took over the company and told her she was a medical liability and could not work full time with benefits. For a while she worked part time without benefits until the company eliminated her position. So the 49-year-old single mother of five, with two teenage boys still at home, now lives on $21,300 a year from Social Security disability, child support and payments from the company’s long-term disability policy she got as a benefit when she was first hired. That’s about $6,000 above the federal poverty level, and too high to qualify for food stamps. But it is not enough to feed her family.

Food is the expendable item in a poor person’s budget. With the need to pay for gasoline, car insurance, trailer rent, clothes, medicine and utilities, and to make payments on a car loan and $10,000 in medical bills, Spearman says three meals a day “take a back seat.” She says she and her family eat a lot of rice with biscuits and gravy. Their diet is more interesting only when a local supermarket sells eight pieces of chicken for $3.99 or chuck roast for $1.49 a pound. “This country doesn’t want to admit there’s poverty,” she says. “We can feed the world but not our own.”

Spearman’s predicament mirrors that of many Americans. While the most severe forms of malnutrition and starvation that prevailed through the 1960s have largely disappeared, some 33 million people live in households that aren’t sure where their next meals are coming from–those whom policy analysts call the food insecure. And with poverty on the rise–the United States experienced the biggest jump in poverty in a decade in 2001, to nearly 12 percent of the population–their ranks are growing. At the end of 2002 the US Conference of Mayors reported a 19 percent increase in the demand for emergency food over the previous year. Food pantries, shelters, soup kitchens and other emergency food providers now serve at least 23 million people a year. “They are America’s dirty little secret,” says Larry Brown, who directs Brandeis University’s Center on Hunger and Poverty. “They are hardworking have-nots who cannot pay the rent, medical bills, and still feed their families.”

Food and hunger are a lens through which we see what America has become: a country indifferent to the basic needs of its citizens, one that forces millions of them to rely on private charity that is inadequate, inefficient and frequently unavailable. As people with low and middle incomes have lost their jobs, their families line up for handouts, something many thought they’d never have to do. Hunger exposes the casualties of the ever-widening income gap between the rich and the rest of the population, and the damage inflicted by a twenty-year campaign waged by right-wing think tanks and conservative politicians to defund and delegitimize government. That campaign, which has succeeded in returning the public’s view of poverty to the Darwinian one that prevailed before the Progressive Era at the turn of the twentieth century, is emblematic of the right’s assault on public programs, which has used the old-fashioned notion of personal failing as the vehicle for accomplishing its political goals. Indeed, few politicians now advocate for the hungry.

The Way We Were

Beginning in the 1930s and into the 1940s, when Franklin Roosevelt articulated his Four Freedoms, including the freedom from want, America made a commitment, if not always perfectly executed, to feed the less fortunate. To be sure, the commitment was to some extent self-serving, in that food programs were designed to use up the surpluses produced by American agriculture. Still, there was a recognition that people couldn’t always help themselves, and over the following decades champions emerged in Congress to battle for the needs of hungry people. From Robert Kennedy etching the face of hungry kids into the American conscience during his widely publicized trips to Appalachia to George McGovern and Bob Dole fighting for food stamps on the floor of the Senate, politicians stood up to help the hungry, putting government resources behind school lunches; school breakfasts; WIC, which feeds pregnant women and young children; and child nutrition.

When the nutrition programs under the Older Americans Act were created in 1972, authorizing special food programs for the elderly, it was Richard Nixon who pushed for more funding. Throughout the 1970s few Americans would have disputed the idea that the federal government had a major role to play in feeding the hungry. “Hunger was a problem we came much closer to solving in the 1970s,” says James Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center. “Food stamps were more available, wages at the bottom were higher and there was less inequality.”

But then came the Reagan Revolution, with its emphasis on cutting government and the taxes needed to support it. In 1981, when the Heritage Foundation published its first Mandate for Leadership, the right laid out its plan “to restrain the food programs” and reduce the federal government’s role. Some of its proposals, like moving the functions of the Community Food and Nutrition Program to the states through block grants, have come to pass. That has meant less money, intensive competition among nonprofit organizations and ultimately less outreach and advocacy for the hungry.

In his speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination, Ronald Reagan coined the term “safety net.” Implicit was the idea that like a trapeze artist who needed a safety net only to prevent rare catastrophes, government would help only those in dire need and that most of the time people could provide for themselves. Almost everyone, including many liberals, bought into the concept, which subtly shifted the purpose of social programs from assuring adequate living standards for all to helping the few who occasionally fell on hard times. Reagan attacked the legitimacy of food stamps by painting a picture of undeserving welfare queens who ate at the government trough while buying vodka with their benefits. That notion stuck, and public support for food programs waned.

Now conservatives are again on the attack. Last December in the Washington Post Outlook section, Douglas Besharov, director of the Project on Social and Individual Responsibility at the American Enterprise Institute, argued that the WIC program contributed to childhood obesity. He posited that real hunger is found “predominantly among people with behavioral or emotional problems such as drug addicts and the dysfunctional homeless,” and he criticized liberal advocacy groups, unions and farmers for standing in the way of reform and modernization, code words the right often uses to build support for dismantling a program while making it seem like they’re improving it. Conservative columnists and op-ed writers picked up his arguments. This year WIC and the child nutrition programs are scheduled for Congressional reauthorization. While there’s no question Congress will reauthorize the programs, planting doubt about them increases the chance politicians will change the rules to make fewer people eligible. WIC is the golden child of the food programs. If it is tarnished, the rest will lose favor as well.

Less Money, Fewer Meals

Spending on the cluster of nine domestic food programs rose from $30.3 billion in 1982 to $42.7 billion in 1992 (in 2002 dollars). In the 2002 fiscal year it had fallen to $38.4 billion–less than 2 percent of the entire federal budget. Those numbers reflect drastic reductions over time–the Reagan Administration’s cuts in 1981-82 and the cuts mandated by welfare reform in 1996–as well as modest funding increases between 1984 and 1993. “The cuts at the beginning of the Reagan Administration and the ’96 cuts were far bigger than the modest increases in intervening years,” says David Super, general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Funding has recovered partially but is well behind what it would have been had it not been for the cuts.”

Food programs for the elderly have suffered a steep decline in federal appropriations after adjusting for inflation. In 2002 the government spent $716.5 million on home-delivered meals and on meals provided at senior centers. Ten years earlier it spent $767.4 million (in 2002 dollars), which explains why all over the country older Americans stay for months on waiting lists for a hot meal delivered to their door. The budget for New York City’s home-delivered meals programs illustrates the federal government’s fiscal retreat: Twenty years ago Washington funded 80 percent of the program and the city funded the rest. Today the federal government provides less than 20 percent, and city and private sources provide the balance.

Because food stamps are an entitlement, spending depends on how many people apply. Currently, that amount is about $22 billion, making food stamps by far the largest federal food program. Food stamps, which date back to 1939, have never been used by 100 percent of all people who are eligible. The high point came in 1994, when 75 percent of all eligible people were on the rolls; the low point was in 1999, when only 58 percent were getting help. “A golden era for the food-stamp program never existed,” said Doug O’Brien, vice president of America’s Second Harvest. There was a time, though, when government agencies, such as the now-defunct Community Services Administration, sponsored extensive outreach and advocacy programs with the goal of enrolling more people. But after the Heritage Foundation attacked its advocacy work in the early 1980s, en-rolling more participants was no longer encouraged, remembers Charles Bell, a VISTA worker at the time.

Participation also depends on how hard states make the application process, and in the 1990s they made it very hard. Unfriendly rules requiring excessive verification, more frequent visits from caseworkers and the need to reapply in person, as well as pressure on the states to reduce their error rates, discouraged many from applying. California, New York and Texas have practically criminalized the process by requiring applicants to be fingerprinted, an action that automatically brands them as potential cheaters. It’s hardly surprising that only about half of all eligible residents in those states get food stamps. Receiving food stamps has always carried a stigma–“It’s an intentional thing that keeps the program small and saves money,” says Agnes Molnar, a senior fellow at New York City’s Community Food Resource Center. Food-stamp participation is rising again nationwide, but many states still discourage applicants. In New York City, despite a sharp increase in unemployment, food-stamp use actually dropped between 2001 and 2003. “Low-income people have walked away from the program,” O’Brien says.

According to Mathematica Policy Research, the average monthly benefit is $185, but the actual amount varies by family size. For elderly people living alone the average benefit is $50, but for 35 percent of this group, the benefit is only $10 because medical expenses and rent are not high enough to offset their monthly income, usually less than $600 from Social Security’s Supplemental Security Income. When Congress reauthorized the food-stamp program last year, a move to increase the minimum benefit to $25 failed. “Because of the obsolescence of the assumptions on which food-stamp levels are based, they are no longer sufficient to prevent or guarantee against hunger,” says Janet Poppendieck, a sociology professor at Hunter College in New York City. The food-stamp program assumed that families had 30 percent of their income to spend on food, an estimation that was more realistic when there was a much larger supply of low-income housing. Food stamps were intended to fill in the gap between the 30 percent and the cost of an arbitrarily set thrifty food plan. But today poor families use 50-80 percent of their income on housing and have far less to spend on food. The food stamps they do get are not enough for an adequate diet. So families run out of food before the month ends. That’s when they turn to the 50,000 food pantries and soup kitchens across the country, links in an intricate system of food rationing that began as a temporary response to cuts during the Reagan years.

Pantries as a Way of Life

Emergency food is now entrenched in nearly every city and town. It represents a fundamental failure of government to adequately feed its citizens. About 30 percent of the people who visit pantries receive food stamps–a stark indication that even those who do get stamps need more help and that many who need help are not getting them. The pantries’ very existence lulls the public and politicians into believing they are the answer. But neither politicians nor anyone with adequate income would care to shop at them.

Food pantries are community supermarkets in poor neighborhoods. But shoppers can’t come and go as they please, nor can they always choose the food they want. “Sometimes your heart can run away with your funds, especially when there are children involved,” says Roy Lawton, a program director at Panhandle Community Services in western Nebraska. So, he adds, there must be limits. At his agency in Gering, people can come three times a year if they qualify. A family of four can have an income no greater than $23,920. If they have one dollar more, or if they’ve come too often, pantry workers send them to area churches that have less stringent rules.

The quantity of food people get is almost always restricted in some way. At Bread for the City in Washington, DC, workers simply hand clients a food bag after a computer check verifies that they have visited only once during the month. There’s no choice of foods here. Food director Verneice Green explains that it would be “too chaotic” to let people in the back room, where the food is stored. At St. Paul of the Shipwreck in San Francisco, the pantry resembles a child’s board game. At each stop along a room lined with shelves, a person can choose a set number of items according to a color code and family size. At the West Side Campaign Against Hunger in Manhattan, director Doreen Wohl wants her pantry to resemble a supermarket so clients feel better about taking handouts. The currency here are points assigned to each item. A four-person family can take ten points’ worth of food from each of the protein, vegetable, fruit and dairy sections, while a two-person family is allotted six points. On a busy Wednesday 280 people wheel shopping carts through the aisles, but the shelves are not well-stocked. There was less emergency food from the federal government than Wohl had expected–74,000 pounds less this year from the so-called TEFAP program.

At the pantries, people get hand-me-down food. It comes from supermarkets where it has stayed on the shelf too long or is damaged, or it comes from manufacturers that have produced too much of one item or made some product that didn’t sell, like a cereal named Buzz Blasts or a soft drink that’s blue. “Blueberry cola looks like windshield washer fluid, but in food banking, you take the good with the bad,” says Bernie Beaudreau, director of the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. Castoff food, however, doesn’t always make for the most nutritious diets, and arguably contributes to the diet-related health problems prevalent among the population forced to use food pantries. Amtrak has been a big supporter of the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans in downtown Boston, and many of the 300,000 meals the shelter serves each year revolve around Italian wraps and sausage, egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches donated by Amtrak. “It’s a struggle to provide a steady, nutritionally balanced diet, because of our reliance on donated food,” says a shelter worker. Fresh meat and produce are often scarce at the pantries. Last fall in Lincoln, Nebraska, the Lincoln Action Program had enough ten-pound boxes of hamburger for the 400 to 600 people who were coming every week for food, and one day 300 clients lined up for onions, squash, apples and eggplant. But, says outreach worker Sheryl Haas, “there are weeks when the pickings are really slim.”

They will grow slimmer as major changes sweep through the emergency food system. Many of the 216 food banks across the country that supply the pantries have less donated food to give away, particularly canned and boxed products that were once the food banks’ staples. “Cereal donations are down 30-40 percent or more,” says Frank Finnegan, who heads the St. Louis Area Food Bank. Mike Gillespie, who manages the warehouse for the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, DC, used to get a call once a month from Giant Food to pick up excess products, but now, he says, Giant hasn’t called in months. In 2000 Giant gave the food bank about 2.5 million pounds of food. Last year its donation fell to 1.6 million pounds.

Ironically, food banks have caused supermarkets, manufacturers and restaurants to become aware of how much food they were giving away. With the help of scanning technology and just-in-time inventory systems, businesses changed their practices. At the same time, more outlets such as Super Wal-Marts, dollar stores and flea markets have sprung up where manufacturers can sell their products. Although they get tax breaks for donating, food companies would rather sell than donate.

The only bright spot is that more produce is available because food-bank managers have aggressively sought donations of fruit and vegetables, and major donors have given money so perishables can be shipped quickly around the country. Yet many pantries don’t have adequate refrigeration, or they are staffed with elderly volunteers who can’t lug around 100-pound bags of onions and potatoes.

Some food companies have embraced “cause marketing,” a new kind of charity that ties a firm’s brand with a warm, fuzzy cause like hunger. “It’s doing well for the company and doing good at the same time,” explains Carol Cone, CEO of Cone Communications in Boston. But cause marketing hardly begins to solve the needs of hungry people. With Cone’s help, the giant ConAgra Foods supports some of the 900 Kids’ Cafes around the country–including one of the twenty-eight in Washington, DC, that serve 1,200 kids out of 43,000 children who are eligible. Other individuals and groups try to fill in the gaps. Last year Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin raised $1 million to pay for 680,000 meals during the summer, a time when supplies at food pantries run low and school breakfasts and lunches are not available. But when the money ran out, the meals stopped.

Underlying the premise of food banks was the notion that someday they would not be needed and would disappear. Instead, food banking has become big business. Pantries have proliferated, there are jobs to protect, salaries to pay, an infrastructure to maintain. Perhaps as a result, there’s a split among food-bank leaders, with some believing they should advocate for government solutions to the fundamental problems of poverty and others believing that rounding up more donations is the answer. Some food-bank boards of directors are fearful of direct advocacy. “We’ve chosen not to get involved politically,” says Finnegan. But, he says, “private industry is not going to be able to solve this problem. If it’s anyone’s responsibility, it’s the government’s.”

Getting to Root Causes

Hunger, of course, is symptomatic of a deeper problem–inadequate income, which hits even the US military at a time when the country has chosen guns over butter. The WIC office located at Offutt Air Force base near Omaha serves 650 servicewomen, wives of military personnel and their children each month. To qualify for free food, a family of three, for example, must have a gross income this year that’s less than $28,231. “Most people don’t have enough money. That’s why they’re in the program,” says a WIC official. Through the years, however, feeding people through special programs rather than dealing with their lack of money became the palatable political choice.

Those who favor the route of special programs say it would not take a lot of money to insure that all Americans are fed. “Six billion dollars more could cut hunger in half in two years,” says David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World. “It’s an eminently solvable problem.” But more government money is not likely. In fact, there will probably be less. Earlier this year House Republicans passed legislation that would transform the food-stamp program into a block grant, yet another way of pushing responsibility to the states and letting them decide when and if they have sufficient revenues to feed people. It’s a way of converting an entitlement into revenue streams for states. After a few years they can divert money to other programs. It’s not hard to imagine what will happen to the needy if the recession and budget deficits continue for several years. At the same time, the Agriculture Department hopes to make it more difficult to qualify for free and reduced-price school lunches, because, it says, some kids are getting cheap lunches even though their families are not eligible. Data, however, show that when more income documentation is required, it reduces participation among eligible children.

Today it’s hard to find a champion for the hungry in Congress, much less in the executive branch. Hunger is not seen as a pressing political problem. In January, representatives of food advocacy groups met with Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and were told there were no extra dollars for food. “We were told it’s going to be a tight budget year,” says Beckmann. “They said there would be no more money for child nutrition, and we had to think about how to do more with the money we’ve got.” Robert Blancato, a food-advocacy group lobbyist, says food programs must be recast to generate Congressional interest. “In this environment, programs need additional buzzwords to survive,” he says. “If you can repackage the meal programs so they don’t look like meal programs, they have a better chance. There’s a whole new priority structure in where the money is going.”

Meanwhile, no one in Washington talks much about living wages, increasing the minimum wage, indexing it for inflation or expanding the earned-income tax credit. But living wages are the only solution if people are ever to move toward the self-sufficiency and personal responsibility that politicians and the public demand of them. It’s hard to buy food when the money you have goes for ever-increasing shelter costs, healthcare because you have no insurance and childcare because there are few low-cost options.

No modern industrial nation should protect the nutritional well-being of its citizens through handouts. But until an outraged public decides that hunger is unacceptable in the richest country in history, there will be more Ellen Spearmans asking why they cannot feed their families.

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