Remember the hungry this election

We have heard the presidential candidates talk a lot about healthcare, defense spending and taxes. While all of these are important issues and on the minds of many citizens, both candidates have been surprisingly mute on helping the most vulnerable people in our society: those who suffer from hunger and poverty.

According to new data released in September by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 14.9 percent of Americans lived in food-insecure households in 2011. That’s 1 in 6 people and includes 16.7 million children. While these figures are shamefully high for the world’s wealthiest country, what’s unconscionable is that nearly 1 in 4 children in this country was at risk of hunger. As a nation, we should be outraged that American kids are going to bed hungry. 

According to the USDA figures, households with children were almost twice as likely to experience food insecurity. Food-insecure households are defined as those in which people struggle to put food on the table and often don’t know the source of their next meal.

Minority communities were hit especially hard by hunger in 2011, with 25.1 percent of African-American and 26.2 percent of Latino households being food insecure. Among African-American and Latino households with children, food insecurity rates were higher than average. While 20.6 percent of all households with children were food-insecure, 29.2 percent of African-American households with children and 32.3 percent of Latino households with children struggled to put food on the table.

Despite all of this bad news, there is one saving grace: Federal safety net programs are working and have kept even more people from going hungry. Nutrition programs like SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps), WIC (the special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) and school meal programs served as lifelines for families that otherwise would have gone hungry in 2011. These programs are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do — be there in a family’s time of greatest need.

This brings us to Congress. During the lame-duck session, Congress must decide what to do about the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts that are set to expire on Dec. 31, 2012, as well as across-the-board federal spending cuts scheduled to hit Jan. 2. If lawmakers fail to come to an agreement, funding for almost all federal programs will be severely diminished, including safety net programs that have proven successful during times of high unemployment and economic stress. Congress must also reach an agreement for reauthorizing the farm bill, which funds SNAP. More than 45 million people rely on this critical legislation to feed their families. 

Now is the time for Americans to demand that current members of Congress and those running for office, including the presidential candidates, step up for hungry and poor people and create a circle of protection around programs that help those in need lift themselves out of poverty.

Poverty is a key religious issue that must be addressed in the 2012 election; candidates can no longer be silent. That’s why I — along with leaders of a number of Christian denominations and organizations — called on President Obama and Mitt Romney to publicly state what each will to do to provide help and opportunity for hungry and poor people in our country and around the world. Both candidates have provided video responses, which can be viewed at

As I wrote in my book, Exodus from Hunger, “Voting is a sacred obligation. Giving time and money to candidates who have demonstrated their commitment to reducing mass hunger and poverty is an integral part of good stewardship.”

Listen to what the candidates have to say, and when you cast your ballot, be mindful of the least among us.

Beckmann is president of Bread for the World.