Five myths about hunger in America

By Robert Egger
Sunday, November 21, 2010

Starving Pilgrims, food-bearing Indians -- in legend if not in fact, Thanksgiving has always been about keeping hunger at bay. Yet, four centuries after the Mayflower landed at Plymouth, Mass., not everyone in the New World can count on a full cupboard when mealtime rolls around. Since donated turkeys and cans of cranberry sauce solve our hunger problem only one day a year, it's worth taking a hard look at some myths about who's hungry in America and why.

1. No one goes hungry in America.

Hunger is supposed to happen in other places - in distant countries where droughts or storms or famine compel us to donate money and oblige our government to send relief workers and food aid. In reality, hunger also hits much closer to home.

According to a new report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 17.4 million American families - almost 15 percent of U.S. households - are now "food insecure," an almost 30 percent increase since 2006. This means that, during any given month, they will be out of money, out of food, and forced to miss meals or seek assistance to feed themselves.

Even those who get three meals a day may be malnourished. Americans increasingly eat cheap, sugary foods whose production is underwritten by government subsidies for the corn and dairy industries. As the New York Times reported this month, the USDA loudly promotes better eating habits while quietly working with Domino's to develop a new line of pizzas with 40 percent more cheese.

Obesity is related to hunger, too, thanks to our poor food choices and the lack of healthy food options in many communities. Many of us may be packing on the pounds, but they are life-threatening. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 30 percent of adults are obese. The number of children who struggle with their weight is increasing, particularly among Latinos. Diet-related illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes are now on the list of the leading causes of death in America. We are dying not because we aren't eating, but because we're eating the wrong things.

2. Ending malnourishment is merely a humanitarian concern.

Hunger threatens our economic future and our national security. An astonishing one in four American children - close to 17 million - live in food-insecure homes. A kid who is hungry cannot learn. A kid who can't learn drops out of school. A kid without an education can't get a job and help America compete in a global economy. A kid without a job may turn to crime, get arrested and cost taxpayers $40,000 a year to sit in prison.

Those children who become obese adults, meanwhile, limit our armed forces' ability to protect our nation. Military officers recently warned that more than 9 million young adults - 27 percent of Americans ages 17 to 24 - weigh too much to enlist, shrinking the pool of candidates for service.

Meanwhile, more than 9 percent of medical spending, $147 billion annually, is devoted to treating obesity, and obese people spend $1,500 more per year on health care than people of average weight. The costs of poor nutrition help drag us further into debt and leave us vulnerable. America simply can't afford malnourishment anymore.

3. Children are the only ones who go hungry.

The person most likely to be hungry is a single, working mother. Federal programs ensure that low-income children can get free meals at school, but their mothers - many of whom are single and work low-paying jobs in the service sector - often have to make tough choices between food, rent, gas for the car, health care or new shoes for their kids. Millions of American women face this predicament who will feed their children and go without meals themselves.

Another tragedy in America is the rapidly growing number of seniors who have to choose between food, medicine and utilities. Though few of our elders will admit to needing help, a 2007 study by Meals on Wheels indicated that as many as 6 million are going hungry. Meanwhile, that free food-delivery service has waiting lists in many cities. The 80 million baby boomers approaching retirement are expected to live longer than any previous generation, but not all have set aside enough resources for their final years. When that silver tsunami strikes, hunger will come with it.

4. The food that America wastes could feed everybody.

According to Jonathan Bloom's new book, "American Wasteland," up to 40 percent of the food we produce is ultimately thrown away. Much of it, such as household waste or decomposing fruits and vegetables, is unfit to eat or impractical to collect. Unnecessary expiration dates, particularly on canned foods, condemn millions of pounds of food to landfills. Logistically, we just can't feed everyone with leftovers.

Still, that doesn't mean we shouldn't use them. Since President Bill Clinton signed the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996, initiatives around the country have retrieved millions of pounds of great food from restaurants and hotels and have used it to feed the hungry and provide culinary job training for the unemployed. Food banks have redistributed hundreds of millions of pounds of nonperishable items, and food activists called gleaners have taken to farms to forage for crops that won't make it to market.

5. Hunger is about food.

Ever since President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in 1964, the government has worked diligently to ensure that no American goes hungry. For years, the USDA flooded communities with surplus commodities such as cheese and butter. Enrollment in the food stamp program (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), the front-line federal weapon in the fight against hunger, is at an all-time high, with 42.4 million people receiving support.

Yet the number of Americans who struggle to put food on their tables has never decreased. This is because hunger isn't about food. It's about jobs and wages.

The passage of living-wage laws, tariffs that protect U.S. jobs and comprehensive public health care - coupled with consumer support for businesses that pay good wages, reinvest in their communities or embrace green polices - would do more to combat hunger than anything charities have tried in the past five decades. Incentives for local food production would keep us healthy and our local economies thriving.

For example, D.C. Central Kitchen, which I founded in 1989, provides locally sourced, made-from-scratch meals for public and charter schools in Washington as well as for clients of Fresh Start, our catering company. In the middle of a recession, we just added 30 well-paid employees who receive benefits, many from our own job-training program. Last year, 80 of our graduates, many of them felons or former drug addicts, earned more than $2 million in salaries and paid more than $200,000 in local payroll taxes. And while learning new skills, they produced more than 1.4 million healthy meals for shelters and food programs.

What we are doing isn't unique. It's happening all over America, and it isn't charity - it's rock-solid business.

Robert Egger is the founder and president of D.C. Central Kitchen and the Campus Kitchens Project.

Want to challenge everything you think you know? Check out other stories in our "Five Myths" series.

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