Hunger in America—And What Can Be Done About It

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

During the years I lived in Sri Lanka, when local people would strike up a conversation with me, they would usually begin by asking what country I’m from. When I told them “America,” almost invariably they would exclaim, with a sigh of admiration, “America—that’s a rich country!” Judging from the impressions conveyed by our forms of popular entertainment, their assessment of our standard of living might have seemed reasonable; but such judgments would have been flawed, based on a narrow reading of appearances. When we dig beneath the surface, we find that there is a dark underbelly to American life that rarely appears in our TV programs or movies, and remains hidden even in the mainstream media. This is the magnitude of poverty in our land. It’s a fact we don’t like to admit, for it amounts to a betrayal of our country’s promise and a negation of the dream that inspires people around the world. Yet to get back on track we have to face the truth and bring the full weight of our moral consciousness to the task of correcting our deviation from our professed ideals.

One telling indication of such poverty is the extent of hunger and malnutrition in this nation that proclaims itself “the greatest in the world.” Two recent reports bear testimony to the harsh facts regarding hunger in America. The information they impart is candid and objective, and they back up their claims with hard data and vital statistics.

A report published by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), entitled Food Hardship in America 2011, analyzes the results of a Gallup-Heathways poll based on the question, “Have there been times in the last twelve months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?” A “Yes” answer to this question is understood as an indication of “food hardship.” The report tabulates data from this poll showing the national food hardship rates for the years 2008-2011, both annually and by quarters. For 2011 alone, rates are shown by regions, states, and metropolitan areas.

The figures indicate that food hardship increased nationally from 17.8% in 2008 to 18.6% in 2011, the highest in the four years that FRAC has been analyzing the data. In the third and fourth quarters of 2011, more people answered “Yes”  (almost 20% each time) than in any period since the fourth quarter of 2008. The worst affected regions were the Southeast, the Southwest, and the Far West. Seventeen states topped 20%, which amounts to 1 out of 5 people smitten by food hardship.  Even the best state (North Dakota) came in at 10%, one out of ten, unacceptable for an affluent nation like our own.

The challenge families face in purchasing the food they need is explained not only by the recession and current high unemployment rate, but by food inflation that has outstripped the benefits provided under SNAP, the Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps. The cost of food increased 6.2% over 2011, while SNAP benefits have lagged behind. This means, in effect, that beneficiaries under SNAP have lost a significant portion of their food purchasing power and thus get less food for the buck.

An overview of the value of SNAP, with special reference to children, is provided in the second report, The Snap Vaccine, published in February by the Children’s HealthWatch (CHW). The report’s title alludes to the parallel ways SNAP and a vaccine safeguard the health of children. Just as a vaccine immunizes children against disease, so adequate quantities of nutritious food provide “the right immunization to decrease a young child’s risk of ill health and slow learning.”

Nutrition plays an especially crucial role during the first three years of life, the most vulnerable period in a child’s development. In this period the brain and body need high levels of quality nutrients to develop normally. If such nutritional requirements are not met, the child faces a high risk of stunted growth, chronic illness, physical weakness, and impaired development of the brain and nervous system. Deprived children demonstrably do worse in school, and their employment prospects on reaching adulthood are considerably lower than their well-nourished peers.

Allotments under SNAP are by no means confined to the slim segment of extremely poor people in the U.S. Shockingly, 50% of children in America—America of all places!—are expected to live in households that receive SNAP at some point in their childhood. Nevertheless, the report points out, the assistance offered by SNAP currently falls short of what is needed in an adequate diet. SNAP benefits are based on the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), which was last updated in 2006 and thus no longer reflects the real cost of food in many parts of the country. In Boston in 2008, for example, the average monthly cost of TFP was almost 40% higher than the maximum monthly SNAP benefits; in Philadelphia the cost was almost 50% above the maximum benefits.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has increased the amount of aid provided by SNAP, thus lowering the gap. However, these increased benefit levels are in jeopardy, scheduled to end in October 2013. This will cause a substantial and sudden reduction in benefits for almost all households in the program. The Snap Vaccine concludes that “until benefit levels are adjusted to match the cost of a healthy diet, in line with the latest scientific recommendations, SNAP’s great potential to relieve hunger, support children’s health and healthy development, and promote a stronger America cannot be fully realized.”

The danger posed by cutbacks in food assistance should prick our sense of conscience, both as Buddhists and as human beings. Food is indispensable to life, and adequate quantities of nutritious food are essential to ensure that children grow into healthy and productive adults. The prevalence of hunger in America is an affront to the Buddhist moral consciousness and a blemish upon our national heritage. Yet, seen in context, it is still another symptom of economic inequality and of the widening gulf between the privileged corporate elite and everyone else.

Effective action is sorely needed, and the plight of the hungry should awaken us from complacency. We should not tolerate policies that permit the ultra-rich to allocate an ever-greater portion of the nation’s wealth to themselves, while a quarter of our fellow citizens—above all, children—subsist on minimal diets and face the risk of malnutrition and its attendant ills. Our Declaration of Independence states that all human beings are entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” yet when access to satisfactory standards of nutrition is blocked by arbitrary barriers, no pursuit of happiness, let alone life, is really possible.

While Buddhist Global Relief intends to increase the number of projects it sponsors here in the United States, the remedy needed is not a matter of charity but of social justice and wise economic policy. The FRAC report states that every $5 invested in food aid results in an increase in $9 in economic productivity. Hunger and malnutrition, in contrast, cause a drain on the nation’s health, leading to increased medical expenditures, a population impaired both physically and mentally, and an enfeebled economy.

Fortunately, the Snap Vaccine provides a set of policy recommendations for countering the ominous trend of growing hunger in America. These include:

  • Maintaining the existing structure of SNAP.
  • Making benefit level improvement a permanent part of SNAP.
  • Supporting positive choices.
  • Increasing outreach to immigrant families to ensure that all children receive the nutritional supports for which they are eligible.

When politicians speak of cutting food aid as a way to reduce the national deficit, they do not have the sympathy of the American people. The FRAC report says that 78% of voters believe the federal government should be spending more money on solving hunger or should continue to spend the same amount. The report also includes a table showing the food hardship rate and rank for each congressional district, along with the name of the representative for that district. This offers readers an opportunity to write to their representatives and urge them to protect the people they represent by refusing to cut food benefits.

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