What does it mean to be hungry in America? And how do we solve the issue of domestic hunger?
To answer those questions, Congress created the bipartisan National Commission on Hunger, a group tasked with providing “policy recommendations to Congress and the USDA Secretary to more effectively use existing programs and funds of the Department of Agriculture to combat domestic hunger and food insecurity.”
The commission recently released a report on their findings and recommendations. According to the executive summary, “ This report is based on the commission members’ full agreement that hunger cannot be solved by food alone, nor by government efforts alone. The solutions to hunger require a stronger economy, robust community engagement, corporate partnerships, and greater personal responsibility, as well as strong government programs.”
One of the key decisions the commission had to make was an agreement on how to define hunger. They chose a readily available measure of hunger called very low food security, which occurs when eating patterns are disrupted or food intake is reduced for at least one household member because the household lacked money and other resources for food.
For purposes of this report, hunger means the lack of access to food when families do not have enough money, causing them to cut the size, quality, or frequency of their meals throughout the year. We wish to be very clear that hunger in America is not the same as famine and the resulting malnutrition seen in developing countries.
By this standard, 5.6 percent of households—6 million Americans—experienced hunger in 2014, for an average of about 7 months.
The commission identified 6 root causes of hunger:
Labor Market Forces and Job Availability — “The number of households experiencing hunger is sensitive to economic forces.”
Family Structure — “Marriage has a significant impact on whether or not a household will experience hunger: Households with an unmarried head of household are more likely to face hunger than other households in America.”
Education — “U.S. high school graduation rates have improved, with the national graduation rate exceeding 80% in 2012 for the first time in U.S. history; however, economic, racial, cultural, and ethnic differences remain.”
Exposure to Violence — “Research over the last 10 years has found that victims of violence, neglect, or abuse as a child or violence as an adult, are more likely to report hunger.”
Historical Context – “There are significant racial, ethnic, and gender disparities between households that report hunger and those that do not.”
Personal Responsibility — “Although we feel that our nation would make progress in reducing hunger if we made gains in each of the factors above, we also acknowledge one other key ingredient—the actions of individuals.”
The commission also made recommendations in six areas to comprise a total of 20 specific recommendations to Congress and the USDA.
- Make improvements to SNAP (10 recommendations in three categories: work, nutrition, and wellbeing)
- Make improvements to child nutrition programs (4 recommendations)
- Improve nutrition assistance options for people who are disabled or medically at risk (2 recommendations)
- Fund pilot programs to test the effectiveness of strategic interventions to reduce and eliminate hunger (1 recommendation; 4 pilots)
- Incentivize and expand corporate, nonprofit, and public partnerships to address hunger in civil society (1 recommendation.)
- Create a White House Leadership Council to End Hunger that includes participation by a broad group of government and non-government stakeholders (2 recommendations).
In their conclusion, the commission notes that “there is another aspect of personal responsibility at work: personal responsibility extends to all. Everyone can take direct actions to reduce hunger.”
Each of us should extend compassion for and help to our neighbors and get involved in hunger relief efforts in our communities. We need more of that kind of personal responsibility, too. With it, we will end hunger in the United States.