The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the hunger crisis in this country that has always persisted below the surface. Even before this health emergency, more than 35 million people were going hungry in America, including 10 million children. Millions more over the last year were forced to make the inhumane choice between affording priorities such as medicine and shelter, or putting food on the table.
We know that hunger is about more than just an empty stomach. It can lead to chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and depression. And communities of color are disproportionately affected by hunger and often lack access to nutritious foods, which leads to poorer health outcomes compared to whites. Children who are hungry fall short academically and often experience developmental delays that follow them through life.
Hunger is also terribly expensive, costing our health care industry an estimated $53 billion every year.
This research isn’t new but unfortunately, so far, it has failed to spur many lawmakers to take action to end the hunger crisis here in the wealthiest nation on the planet. Often, policymakers justify this inaction by suggesting that the American people are demanding attention to more urgent priorities instead. But new research from The Root Cause Coalition shows the hollowness of that argument. In fact, Americans are demanding action on hunger in numbers we’ve rarely seen before.
According to the organization’s recent data, more than three-quarters surveyed say hunger should be a priority. This support runs deep, and is apparent across all demographics studied – age, gender, race, income, region, and education level. It also stayed consistent regardless of whether individuals were parents.
This same report reveals that about one-quarter of Americans worry significantly about their family having enough to eat, and more than half report worrying at least some of the time.
This data should be a wake-up call for legislators who have been sitting on the sidelines as this crisis has endured for decades. It should also add new urgency to efforts designed to take a holistic and fresh approach to combating food insecurity in this country.
This is an all-hands-on-deck moment that requires a whole of government response. That’s why we are calling on the Biden administration to hold a substantive, policy-based conference focused on ending hunger in the United States. This conference should bring together the heads of food banks, hospitals, government agencies, nonprofits, educators, individuals with lived experiences, and more. All participants should be focused on a single goal: crafting a real plan with benchmarks to help us end the hunger crisis by 2030, as the United Nations has called for.
The first and only White House conference was held by President Nixon the same year we put a man on the moon. Although imperfect, it implemented or improved many of the programs we rely on today, including the Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).
These are the very programs The Root Cause Coalition found widespread support for in its new research. More than eight in 10 say they at least somewhat support SNAP while a similar number say they at least somewhat support WIC. Parents and those earning less than $40,000 annually are among those who express even greater support – about seven in 10 parents surveyed say they wholeheartedly support SNAP with roughly the same percentage saying they wholeheartedly support WIC.
Imagine what we can achieve today at a White House hunger conference for the 21st century. We have the know-how, the food, and the ability to truly end hunger in America once and for all. The missing puzzle piece is the decision by policymakers to make this the national priority it should be.
Hunger impacts dinner tables in every community and Congressional district in our nation. The American people are demanding action like never before. The question is whether national leaders are finally willing to listen – and act.
Rep. James P. McGovern, D-Mass., serves as Chairman of the House Rules Committee. Barbara Petee is Executive Director of the Root Cause Coalition.
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