Kitchens and hospitals are two different worlds, but I believe that the fight to feed the hungry needs to learn from the history of the fight to heal the sick.
The heroic response to the coronavirus pandemic by hospital workers across the nation over the past 10 months was in some ways made possible by the 1918 flu pandemic and the reforms that followed. Before that catastrophe, hospitals in the United States tended to be run by religious institutions and charities. There was no broad, coordinated health-care system to speak of, and poor people who could not afford a doctor were often blamed for their own suffering.
A similar approach is now needed for food and hunger. The pandemic and the economic damage caused by it have triggered a hunger crisis in America. Developing a professionalized response — with the full force of the federal government, across multiple agencies and departments — is essential.
Almost 26 million Americans say they don’t have enough to eat each week, according to the latest census data. Religious groups, nonprofits and volunteers who run community kitchens and food banks have done monumental work, but the scale is too great. The aid provided by the Agriculture Department’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is clearly inadequate.
Hunger is not a red-state or blue-state crisis. In Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Kentucky, 12 percent of adults say they don’t have enough to eat. In House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s California, it’s 10 percent.
This is not an urban or a rural crisis. It shows up in the long lines of people on the sidewalks of New York City and in the long lines of cars in East Texas, all waiting for the distribution of free food.
We’re long past the old debates about welfare and self-reliance. Thousands of Walmart and McDonald’s employees count on SNAP food stamps to feed themselves and their families.
What is the federal government doing about this crisis hitting 1 in 10 U.S. adults? Not nearly enough. The federal government gives food banks just $500 million in a normal year. That’s about $20 per hungry American per year. Now, in the pandemic, Congress is struggling to raise SNAP by 15 percent, which would add just 80 cents to the maximum daily benefit for each member of a family of four. That’s literally less than a can of beans.
The new round of stimulus spending being negotiated will surely fall short of what’s needed. But those federal dollars can be made to go further by supporting both the struggling food industry and struggling Americans.
Lawmakers don’t have to choose between helping restaurants and feeding the hungry: Restaurants can feed the hungry, with federal support. There’s also no need to choose between paying farmers to destroy crops or supporting food banks: Farmers can be paid to supply the food banks.
Just because hunger is hard to see doesn’t mean the Federal Emergency Management Agency can avoid responding to this natural disaster. That’s why I began working with a bipartisan group of legislators in Washington last spring to develop the FEMA Empowering Essential Deliveries Act. (Hungry Americans don’t have lobbyists, but they do have members of Congress.)
The Feed Act directs FEMA to work with state and local governments to create feeding plans, delivered by nonprofits and restaurants. It requires no new dollars but instead instructs FEMA to draw on the Disaster Relief Fund to alleviate suffering in what has become the nation’s biggest disaster in living memory. And it would do so without adding to the financial burden of struggling states, cities and counties.
We know this model works. The organization I founded, World Central Kitchen, has put $135 million back in the hands of local restaurants to feed their communities. But nonprofits relying on private donations cannot begin to ramp up a national effort the way Congress can.
To tackle the longer-term hunger and food crisis, we need to think even bigger. We need food policy action across the federal government, including the departments of agriculture, state, labor and education.
The last food summit at the White House was in 1969, under President Richard M. Nixon. It led to 1,800 recommendations, including many of the food and nutrition programs that Americans take for granted today. New thinking is long overdue.