All You Can Eat? How Hungry is America in Good Times versus Recession?

“It is insane, and morally bankrupt, for a nation with this much wealth to allow [hunger] to continue,” said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, at a Center for American Progress event Friday morning. At the event, CAP Policy Analyst Joy Moses led a panel discussion on the importance of a new U.S. commitment to end food insecurity and hunger for all Americans.

Panelist Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and author of All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?, noted that in 2007, more than 36.2 million Americans either did not have enough food or feared they would not have enough at some point during the year. “Hunger,” he said, “should be on the same level as what people thought about cholera, malaria, and yellow fever. These have all been eradicated with the government’s help.” Berg added that with the aid of the federal government, hunger can be eradicated in a few short years.

Federal programs have already made progress. The establishment of food safety net programs, or federal aid and entitlement packages aimed at assisting in the purchase of food for hungry families, has helped to stem the prevalence of starving children that once filled the streets in the early 20th century.

Today’s hunger problems require targeted assistance. “Current food insecurity,” Weill noted, “is often a choice between food and rent, or between food and health care.” As a result, policies focused on bolstering support for poor and working-class families will have the largest effect on hunger. Weill noted that hunger experts “almost unanimously agree we need to boost food stamp programs. Dollar for dollar, they have the best value.”

Congress has clearly taken note. The version of the recovery package recently passed by the House of Representatives includes $20 billion over two years for food stamp costs. These additional funds would allow for an increase in benefit levels, which are currently inadequate to meet the needs of most families who have struggled to manage increased food prices over the last couple of years.

Panelist Judith Bell, president of PolicyLink, agreed with including food stamps in the legislation, adding that “food stamps were the only federal program to work after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005.” She concluded that “with the $28 a week average food stamp benefit available to individuals, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to maintain a healthy diet.”

A healthy diet, Bell explained, is an integral part of any movement to eradicate hunger in the United States. In Louisville, Kentucky, for example, there is a shortage of chain grocery stores in predominantly African-American communities. As a result, many low-income families are forced to shop at convenience stores. “Food deserts,” Bell said, “contribute to the diabetes and obesity that plague these communities. Studies show that given the choice to buy [healthy foods], people will eat healthy foods.”

Overall, the panel agreed that solving the issues surrounding hunger and food insecurity required the leadership of the federal government. “Physical availability, nutrition education, and price affordability make up the three-legged stool of food security,” Berg concluded. While many of the current food safety net programs go a long way toward increasing food security, the panel warned that ultimately “we can’t end hunger without drastically reducing poverty, but if we do, it’ll keep coming back.”

Featured Speakers:
Joel Berg, Executive Director, New York City Coalition Against Hunger; author, All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America?
Judith Bell, President, PolicyLink
Jim Weill, President, Food Research and Action Center

Moderated by:
Joy Moses, Policy Analyst, Poverty Program, Center for American Progress


Center for American Progress, 1333 H St. NW, 10th Floor, Washington, DC , 20005

Additional information

A light lunch will be served at 11:30 a.m.