Fasting for Change

Hunger Fast Gains Momentum as Safety Net Programs Targeted for Cuts

Sarah Sherman explains why this fasting campaign is gaining adherents by the day amid congressional efforts to cut spending on food and other assistance programs.

Ambassador Tony Hall, a former congressman and current executive director of the Alliance to End Hunger, announces the Hunger Fast at the National Press Club on Monday, March 28, 2011, in Washington, D.C. (Flickr/<a href=Bread for the World)" data-srcset=" 610w, 610w, 610w, 500w, 250w" data-sizes="auto" />
Ambassador Tony Hall, a former congressman and current executive director of the Alliance to End Hunger, announces the Hunger Fast at the National Press Club on Monday, March 28, 2011, in Washington, D.C. (Flickr/Bread for the World)

The Hunger Fast campaign is joining supporters together to fast and raise awareness of the unacceptable level of hunger and poverty in the United States and around the world. The campaign launched in late March under the leadership of Ambassador Tony Hall, a former congressman and current executive director of the Alliance to End Hunger. He seeks to remind people that more than 45 million people live in poverty in America and that “around the world, 25,000 people die from hunger-related causes every day, 925 million people suffer from severe hunger and malnutrition, and 2.1 billion live on less than $2 a day.” The Hunger Fast campaign provides additional context to the proposed cuts to domestic and international assistance, which would reduce or eliminate many of the programs designed to alleviate poverty and hunger worldwide.

Ambassador Hall, a long-time supporter of antihunger efforts, is no stranger to using the power of a fast to make a strong political statement. In 1993 he went on a water-only fast to protest the elimination of the House Select Committee on Hunger and what he considered “the lack of conscience of the U.S. Congress towards hungry people.” The Select Committee on Hunger, co-founded by Reps. Benjamin Gilman (R-NY), Mickey Leland (D-TX), and Tony Hall (D-OH) in 1983, was the only congressional committee with a specific focus on finding solutions to national and international hunger and poverty.

That historic, 22-day fast garnered bipartisan support and led to the creation of the Congressional Hunger Center—a nonprofit organization that fights hunger by developing leaders who work on hunger and poverty issues at the grassroots, national, and international levels. Now, efforts are being made to include as many supporters as possible in the current fast. Says Hall: “The stakes are even higher this time, as many of the proposed budget cuts will cause even greater harm to vulnerable people than the cuts that provoked my last fast.”

And people are responding. Excitement is building in the antihunger, antipoverty, and faith communities as more and more organizations and individuals sign on in support of this nonpartisan, inclusive effort. Additional leaders who are participating in the Hunger Fast include:

  • Jim Wallis, president and CEO of Sojourners, a progressive Christian organization that advocates for social change
  • Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, a Christian leader in the movement to end hunger in the United States
  • Ritu Sharma, co-founder and president of Women Thrive Worldwide, a nonprofit that shapes U.S. policy to help women in developing countries lift themselves out of poverty

Together with Ambassador Hall and the Alliance to End Hunger, they are leading more than 40 organizations and close to 30,000 individuals who have joined in the Hunger Fast campaign.

Although this movement has gained tens of thousands of supporters, that number pales in comparison to the millions of Americans currently living in hunger and poverty. At least 50 million Americans, including 17 million children, are “food insecure,” a term that includes those who are unsure how they will afford enough food for their families and those who are forced to ration their food or cut back on meals altogether.

Federal safety net programs are making a big difference in responding to families’ needs to support and feed themselves. One in seven Americans benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the largest of the federal food programs, and many more are eligible but not participating. The nation’s largest federal nutrition programs such as SNAP and the school lunch and breakfast programs are entitlements, a status that protects them from the current proposed cuts for the remaining six months of fiscal year 2011 and ensures all who are eligible will continue to receive benefits. The chairman of the House Budget Committee, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), has proposed a fiscal year 2012 budget that would restructure SNAP as a block-grant program, meaning that those who are eligible for food help under the federal guidelines would not be able to receive benefits once the spending limit for the program was reached.

Then there are the discretionary nutrition programs currently at risk, which include the Women, Infants, and Children program, which served more than 9 million pregnant or breastfeeding women, infants, and children in fiscal year 2010. Cuts to the Commodity Supplemental Food Program also would reduce services for the seniors and children who rely on them.

Even amid the current economic recovery, the rising cost of food is making it more difficult for American families to stretch their food dollars to the end of the month. Add in high unemployment rates and other cost of-living expenses that are on the rise and it becomes clear that low-income people and people living in poverty are already facing significant challenges—challenges that now also threaten some middle-class families. Food insecurity is also a reality for people living above the poverty line. A growing number of middle-class people are experiencing hunger even in the nation’s wealthiest suburbs.

The message of the Hunger Fast campaign is that the poor and the hungry did not cause the Great Recession and that “hurting them is not the way out of it.” Hunger Fast is gaining critical momentum for its fast and others can continue to join the "circle of protection" around these vital assistance programs by participating in any number of ways.

With supporters such as members of Congress, advocacy organizations, leaders of various faith communities, and even Time magazine’s food columnist, Mark Bittman, who recently championed the Hunger Fast cause in his New York Times opinion column, it is clear that the message of this movement is something that resonates with a wide range of people.

Sarah Sherman is a Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow with the Poverty and Prosperity program at the Center for American Progress.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.