We're getting hungrier. A total of 49 million Americans were food insecure in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, which compiles a yearly report on household food security. That means one out of six of us had trouble putting enough food on the table throughout the year.
That marked an increase of 13 million households, or 3.5 percent, from 2007. The report detailed the highest level of food insecurity recorded since the USDA initiated this survey 14 years ago. This is sobering news, especially considering how the nation's recession deepened in 2009, probably leaving even more Americans without enough to eat.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack blamed the recession for this hunger spike. But what accounts for the 36 million people in our country who were hungry before the economy slowed down? Clearly, our social safety net and programs to build self-reliance have proven inadequate to safeguard a large percentage of Americans from hunger and inadequate nutrition. Most startling in the USDA's recent report are the figures that show more than half a million children suffered from "very low food security" in 2008. That's the agency's euphemism for persistent hunger and inadequate nutrition.
An opportunity, however, accompanies these disturbing revelations about hunger in the United States. President Barack Obama has set a goal for his administration to end childhood hunger in our nation by 2015. The Child Nutrition and W.I.C. Reauthorization Act is up for review in 2010. This critical piece of legislation, originally enacted in the 1960s, authorizes all federal school meal and child nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, Summer Food Service, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), among others. It's meant to reach millions of children every day, improving their educational achievement, economic security, nutrition, and health. Yes, it obviously fails to do so.
The opportunity in this bleak news is to heed Obama's call to action by encouraging Congress to expand and strengthen this legislation. The $289 billion farm bill enacted in 2008 failed in many ways to bring about a transformation of our current food system, which is arguably the critical link in the persistence and escalation of hunger worldwide. This pending legislation offers an opportunity that only comes around once every five years.
It's time to call on lawmakers to mandate universal school meals and summer feeding programs, invest in proven community solutions that rebuild local food economies, ensure fair wages and just working conditions for all food industry and agricultural workers and, promote sustainably grown foods as the basis for child nutrition and food security.
By supporting grassroots organizations implementing innovative solutions to hunger in their communities and by strengthening our laws that govern support for feeding hungry kids, Obama's goal to end childhood hunger in America is possible.
Alison Cohen is the director of programs for WHY (World Hunger Year).