We Are Hungry: Solving the Food Crisis at Home

Growing food insecurity in the United States needs immediate attention, writes Alexandra Cawthorne.

SOURCE: AP/Douglas C. Pizac

Fresh baked bread cools on racks at the Great Harvest Bread Company in Salt Lake City, UT.

The global food crisis may not have received high mention in the American press until recently, but the skyrocketing cost of food commodities, which has incited protests in many countries over the past year, is hitting closer and closer to home.

President Bush released $200 million in emergency food aid to developing countries on Tuesday in response to increasingly violent reactions to the crisis, including violence in the streets of Haiti, where rioters were sprayed with rubber bullets and tear gas; food riots in Cameroon that took the lives of 40 people; and protests in Yemen, where tanks were deployed after days of protest by thousands. While Bush’s response is a necessary action to help curb increasing world hunger, growing food insecurity here in the United States also needs immediate attention.

Converging economic problems, including increased food production and distribution costs, associated with the global food crisis, are raising food prices in local communities. Some of the most important staples have increased faster than other goods over the past year. Milk prices have increased by 13.3 percent, since March 2007, cheese by 12.5 percent, poultry by 5.4 percent, and cereals by 8.1 percent, while eggs are up more than 25 percent. These surging costs are impinging on our quality of life as we buy more generic brands, bulk items, or shop less frequently. And this trend is unlikely to end anytime soon; the Department of Agriculture estimates that the prices of food eaten in our homes will rise by 4 to 5 percent this year.

Lower-income Americans are most seriously affected by the food crisis. In the face of shrinking governmental supports, low-income households paid more than wealthier households for the very same food items long before the current food crisis surfaced. So when food prices increase, they disproportionately affect poor families.

According to data from the Congressional Research Service, poor Americans in 2006 spent almost 6 percent more of their income on food than households with incomes above $70,000. So what may seem like a relatively small increase in the cost of food expenditures can significantly affect the ability of low-income families to purchase medicine, pay their bills, and provide food to their families.

But low-income households are not the only ones at risk. Even higher-income families may soon feel the squeeze of rising food costs with the growing foreclosure crisis, rising unemployment rates, and high fuel prices. Some of the 434,000 Americans who lost their jobs in March may struggle to purchase food, and as winter comes to an end, families with skyrocketing home energy bills are finding it more difficult to purchase food. The result: more Americans are turning to emergency food assistance.

Participation in the Food Stamp Program is projected to reach a record high in the coming year. Already burdened with a steady decline in federal emergency food aid over the last several years, food banks and pantries are missing out on donations as many Americans seek to save money in these lean times. Some have closed up shop entirely, while others have been struggling to keep their shelves stocked while serving, in some cases, double the amount of families from just last year.

Sharp rises in the cost of food commodities are also beginning to affect school cafeterias. Education officials nationwide have said that the USDA National School Lunch Program subsidy has not kept pace with rising costs. Schools receive $2.47 per meal to serve free lunches to children from the poorest families—just a 3 percent increase from the past year, while bread prices rose 12 percent and milk about 17 percent during the same period. As a result, many school cafeterias have been forced to raise the prices that poor families pay, while others now must serve more economical (and often less nutritious) dishes.

The solutions are challenging. While the Farm Bill that waits in Congress contains highly controversial provisions, the nutrition title improvements to the Food Stamp Program and The Emergency Food Assistance Program reflect the clear need to expand and improve our nation’s nutrition programs. This is a crucial part of efforts to address the food crisis at home. Without further action, higher food prices will erode the effectiveness of federal nutrition programs, doing little to offset the rapidly rising costs and growing hunger.

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Alexandra Cawthorne Gaines

Vice President, Poverty to Prosperity