Facing the Hunger Problem

By / 11.17.2009

Yesterday’s release of the USDA’s report on hunger in America was the latest dismal dispatch from the recession’s frontlines. According to the report (PDF), 14.6 percent of Americans experienced food insecurity in 2008, up from 11.1 percent in 2007. Translated in raw numbers, that’s 49 million individuals – nearly 17 million of them children – who had low or very low food security during the year. That 49 million number is greater than the combined total populations of New York, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Kentucky.

The depressing numbers only underscore just how hard-hit Americans have been during the downturn. But they also make one thankful that among the administration’s first accomplishments was to increase the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (formerly known as the Food Stamps Program) by nearly $20 billion as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic stimulus plan passed earlier this year.

Aside from providing immediate and badly needed relief for struggling families, the expansion of the SNAP program also likely gave the economy a jolt. It’s a well-known fact that food stamps offer one of the best bangs for buck when it comes to stimulus. A 2008 study by Moodys found that the multiplier effect of a dollar of SNAP stimulus was 1.73, the highest among the stimulus options studied.

Still, nutrition safety net programs are still far too small. The Food Stamps program reached only 66 percent of eligible people in 2007. And while it’s great that the administration has been vocal and active about the hunger problem, the time is ripe for the president to propose a far more specific plan with more money.

In particular, President Obama needs to continue to seize the moment and accelerate his work to meet his goal of ending child hunger by 2015. (Tom Freedman and I wrote in greater detail about some of our ideas here.) For that to happen, Congress should pass, and the president should sign, a serious Child Nutrition Reauthorization Bill. Such a bill should:

  • Make universal, in-classroom school breakfasts standard in public schools
  • Fund universal school lunches
  • Increase reimbursements to school districts that provide healthier foods
  • Make WIC an entitlement and fund nutritional improvements in the WIC package
  • Reduce paperwork and increase reimbursements for both government and non-profit agencies that sponsor after-school and summer meals for kids

The administration’s infusion of stimulus funds into the SNAP program no doubt brought relief to millions of Americans. In light of the USDA report, the administration should continue its efforts to bolster social services and embark on a serious job creation program to bring an end to hunger.