Fast to begin Monday to protest proposed GOP budget cuts

The heads of five anti-hunger organizations on Monday will lead open-ended fasts to protest proposed cuts to domestic and international food programs contained in the House-passed six month spending bill.

Former Rep. Tony Hall (D-Ohio), the head of the Alliance to End Hunger, told The Hill Friday that Democrats are not doing enough to ensure the cuts do not become law, and he is fasting to give a “voice to the voiceless.”

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He will be joined in his water-only fast by Rev. David Beckmann, the president of Bread for the World; Jim Wallis, the president of Sojourners; Ritu Sharma of Women Thrive and Ruth Messinger of American Jewish World Service. Beckmann said in an interview that so far 350 others have pledged to join the fast and the groups are seeking more support.

While in office, Hall protested 1993 budget cuts to food programs through a 22-day fast. 

He told The Hill that conditions for the world’s poor are worse now, given worldwide food price inflation.

He pointed out in an interview that 50 million Americans and 1 billion worldwide do not have enough to eat. He said worldwide 25,000 people die of hunger and hunger-related illnesses per day and not enough has been done to make the public aware of such facts. 

Foreign aid, which includes hunger assistance for the world’s poor, has an image problem. It has proven to be the most popular place the public wants Congress to cut in opinion surveys, when respondents are asked how to balance the budget.

A Jan. 26 Gallup poll found that 59 percent of respondents said they favored cuts to foreign aid, versus 37 percent who opposed such cuts. Foreign aid in total makes up only 1 percent of the budget, although the public has consistently said it makes up as much as one-third. 

Beckmann said that the public associates foreign aid with building military bases to prop up friendly dictators, but when asked specific questions such whether food rations at refugee camps be reduced, the public opposes aid cuts.

Hall said that in part he hopes by using fasting and prayer, the groups will be able to finally draw attention to what foreign aid is used for, and he said he also hopes to appeal to religious conservative members of Congress to stop the cuts. 

“This is not an act of desperation. It is time to call upon God for help,” he said.

H.R. 1, which the House passed in February, failed to pass the Senate and is the subject of negotiations now. The House GOP wants Democrats to accept its $61 billion in total cuts to 2011 spending.

Among other cuts to poverty programs, the bill would cut $800 million to two international aid programs, the Food for Peace PL 480 program and the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education Program. The second program encourages poor families to send children to school where they receive a free meal.

The bill also cuts the Millennium Challenge Corporation and Feed the Future both of which train poor farmers to grow food more effectively.

Domestically, the House bill will cut the Women Infants and Children food program by 10 percent.

Hall said the House cuts would result in food being denied to up to 18 million more people. He said that the deficit needs to be dealt with, but said the poor and vulnerable should be exempted from cuts. 

Beckmann said that while congressional Democrats have been good at defending programs like Medicare, they appear to have been afraid to mention poor people under the mistaken belief they should appeal only to the middle class.

“They are making a misjudgment. What we know about voters is that they do not want to cut food stamps or food aid,” he said.

Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and others have blasted cuts to WIC and other poverty programs but the issue has gotten less media attention that the tussle over Social Security.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has decried the 16 percent cut to State and USAID in the budget, noting that USAID's humanitarian missions will be devastated.

She told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee March 2 that beyond the humanitarian and moral ground for aid, helping developing countries serves strategic interests. She noted that China is wining and dining leaders and if the U.S. pulls back from engagement it will hurt our influence in the world.

Beckmann said that in the 1990s, congressional conservatives overreached when they tried to cut school lunches. “I believe we are at such a moment now,” he said.

“Democrats need to fight more. The voice for the voiceless has been silenced on Capitol Hill,” Hall said.


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