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In America, millions of low-income families struggle each month to obtain a minimally adequate diet. In 2006, 12.6 million children and 22.9 million adults lived in households struggling against hunger, and those numbers are expected to grow amid a weakening economy, rising joblessness and increased food prices.
It is an outrage that hunger would plague so many in one of the world's biggest food exporters, where more than enough food is produced to feed every American.
While few Americans actually endure starvation, chronic, mild malnutrition takes its toll on children, damaging their physical, mental and psychological health. Poorly nourished children often suffer from stunted development and impaired learning.
What we need for all of our people is food security-assured access at all times to enough food for a healthy life without having to resort to skipping meals or cutting back on the quality or quantity of food bought.
The growth of hunger is related to the growth of poverty and stagnant and declining wages among low-income working families. While incomes have fallen, the cost of food, gasoline, housing and health care have skyrocketed.
The Washington, D.C.-based Food Research and Action Center reports that the cost of food rose 5.1 percent from February 2007 to February 2008, according to the Department of Labor. The percentage hikes in the cost of basics, such as milk, eggs, bread, rice and cheese, have reached double digits.
Subsistence supports like food stamps are insufficient for many families' nutritional needs. As more and more require assistance to purchase food, those already receiving food stamps are finding they are able to buy fewer groceries. Food pantries' supplies are stretched to bare shelves.
Vital food supplement projects supported by the federal government need to be fully funded to accommodate the growing need to provide basic nutrition for children in low-income families. Programs with long track records of success are the WIC program, the Food Stamp Program and the School Lunch and School Breakfast programs. They not only make it possible for millions of children to eat well, they also improve their overall health.
The Women, Infants and Children Program provides nutritious food packages, nutrition education and health care referrals. This combination of services has been shown to improve a child's chances of having a healthy start in life by increasing the likelihood that pregnant women will seek early prenatal care, reducing the rates of infants born pre-term or at low birth weight. Food stamps can lower very young children's risk of poor health, hospitalization and behavioral and emotional problems.
Similarly, children in low-income households who participate in the school lunch and breakfast programs have better quality diets overall. They eat more vegetables and milk at lunch, and fewer sweets and snacks than other kids do. Children with nutritious breakfasts start the school day readier to learn.
As effective as they are, all of these programs are coming up short of providing the nutritional support many low-income families require, and the benefit most families receive is not enough to support a healthy diet through an entire month. In addition, red tape, funding cutbacks and shifting national policy are denying eligible families access to benefits. And about a third of those eligible for food stamps do not receive them.
While the food stamp program receives strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, there have been few federal policy changes to enhance this program because of a standoff between Congress and President George W. Bush. The president has proposed to cut food stamp eligibility for three years in a row, although Congress has consistently rejected that.
Our nation must end this cruel paradox of hunger in the midst of plenty. We have both the economic means and the governmental resources to ensure everybody an adequate diet.
It is past time to correct and strengthen national nutritional programs if we are to prevent families in need from being abandoned. Congress and the president must increase funding for nutrition programs, simplify the application process, and ease eligibility guidelines.
Hunger must no longer plague American households. More than 60 years ago, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt pledged that the people of our nation would be free from want. Surely we can do that when it comes to child nutrition.
- Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children's Defense Fund and a working committee member of the Black Community Crusade for Children.