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We can end hunger in the US — but only with bold action

Volunteers fill up grocery carts with food for distribution into drive through vehicles at the St. Mary's Food Bank Wednesday, June 29, 2022, in Phoenix.
(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Volunteers fill up grocery carts with food for distribution into drive through vehicles at the St. Mary’s Food Bank Wednesday, June 29, 2022, in Phoenix. Long lines are back at food banks around the U.S. as working Americans overwhelmed by inflation turn to handouts to help feed their families.

In May, the Biden administration announced a September White House Conference on Hunger, Health, and Nutrition with a goal to eradicate hunger by 2030.

As members of two organizations that each have spent over 35 years in the trenches of this country’s anti-hunger work, we believe this could be a transformational, once-in-a-generation moment. Who is at the table, how boldly the White House will address the root causes of hunger and how ambitious the post-conference accountability plan is will determine if this is a feel-good photo op or a pivotal moment in American history.

With nearly 12 percent of Americans struggling to put food on the table, food insecurity in America is clearly a national disgrace. But the people behind the statistics — mothers, fathers, grandparents, children, veterans and students — deserve more than business as usual.

When COVID-19 hit, the number of food insecure Americans initially soared 31 percent to over 50 million. Swift, bold action by policymakers including increased support from federal nutrition programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Pandemic-EBT (P-EBT), and issuing direct economic payments to families brought the overall rate of food insecurity down to just above pre-pandemic levels. However, while white Americans saw a modest decline in hunger rates, Black, Indigenous and other communities of color experienced significant increases — more than twice the amount of white Americans.

Those disparities and why hunger persists must be the central focus for lawmakers if we are to meet the 2030 goal. The conference this fall presents an opportunity to examine past mistakes, engage in powerful discussions regarding effective approaches and build consensus around bold policy solutions. We cannot simply recount the past. We must call for a comprehensive approach that identifies and mitigates the major contributing factors affecting hunger — an approach that incorporates thriving wages for all, protections and rights for workers along the food chain, universal school meals, federal legislation that invests in the people creating just, sustainable regional food and farm economies, divestment from Big Ag, investment in Black, Brown and Indigenous farmers and their access to land, seeds and water. We need accountability. 

The first and only White House conference on hunger was convened by President Richard Nixon in 1969, and it yielded federal food programs that continue to provide a safety net for all Americans when troubled times strike close to home. Through the broad expansion of programs like SNAP and free school lunches, this conference led to a period of unprecedented progress against hunger and malnutrition. But exclusionary policies and draconian cuts to federal programs in the 1980s reversed that trend, fueled by and further perpetuating racism (like the offensive “welfare queen” trope), low wages, and corporate control of our food and farming systems.

In 2022, we must go further to systematically and inclusively eradicate this entrenched yet solvable social problem.

First, we need to ensure that those most impacted by food insecurity are not just in the room, but are at the table for strategy setting and decision making conversations. People with lived experience, community advocates and grassroots organizations led by marginalized communities have invaluable perspectives on both the problems and the solutions that a room full of academics and policymakers simply do not. Involving those with the most at stake in our food systems, including small-scale farmers, urban growers, farmworkers, food access organizations, Black and Indigenous food sovereignty activists, food chain workers and anti-hunger advocates is key to sustainable results. Only with their insight and leadership can we move solutions from theoretical to tangible. 

Second, we need to redefine the problem we are trying to solve and look critically at how our current solutions are exacerbating and distorting food insecurity in this country. Focusing on hunger as an isolated problem leads to an overemphasis on charity and short-term programs that are always vulnerable, plunging the people who rely on them into a deeper cycle of poverty and need. At best, the charitable food system offers temporary relief to people in moments of need. But it is not possible to food bank our way out of this problem — we need solutions at scale. We need an approach that addresses the root causes of hunger — racism, worker exploitation, economic injustice and environmental degradation. Government policy, accountable to its people, is the Archimedes lever we need to end hunger for good at this level, as the last two years of COVID-19 relief once again proved. 

If we seek solutions from the vantage point of nutritious food as a fundamental human right, we unleash remedies that go beyond food access and charity to strike at the underlying factors of hunger and poverty. This holistic framework to ending food insecurity is not only a matter of moral or social justice but also of collective self-interest. Rampant hunger hurts all Americans, keeping our people, economy and society from reaching full potential and productivity.

Ending hunger can and should be a bipartisan issue. It would be a failure of politics and policy to consider the extension of the status quo, such as reauthorizing the Farm Bill, to be the mark of victory. 

A visionary approach that thoughtfully considers the root causes of hunger and aims for a world where no one goes hungry is as aspirational as it is entirely possible. With political will, the right questions, and the right people at the table, we can end hunger in the U.S.

We cannot exalt the charitable food sector over our collective responsibility as a nation. We cannot present tired solutions that ignore experience. We demand more.

Abby J. Leibman is president & CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and Noreen Springstead is executive director of WhyHunger.

Tags Biden Food insecurity Hunger in the United States pandemic aid Politics of the United States Richard Nixon

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