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35 million people without enough to eat
Hungry for the holidays

December 15, 2006 | Page 16

ELIZABETH SCHULTE reports on how America's poor go hungry at the holidays.

WHEN THE U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its annual survey on hunger in the U.S. this November, something was missing. The word "hunger."

The government decided to purge the word from this year's Household Food Security survey. Why? Because, officials said, it is not a "scientifically accurate" term.

The term "food insecure with hunger"--the USDA's previous designation for people who suffered the most from lack of food--has been changed to "very low food security." "It seems that 'hungry' means different things to different people," said sociologist Mark Nord, one of the main authors of the USDA survey.

Despite what the USDA may think, "hunger" is something everyone can understand. "We feel that this really diminishes what millions of Americans face every year, which is the honest lack of food or resources to access food in order to lead a healthy productive life," Halley Aldeen, director of research and analysis at the national food bank network America's Second Harvest, said in an interview.

"We really do want the word hunger restored to the report. We don't want to diminish the condition that millions of Americans suffer from," she said. "We know that 25 million Americans rely on our food assistance network, and no matter what others choose to call it, they are hungry."

Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), agrees that the term change does a disservice to the millions of people in the U.S. who go hungry every year.

"It's like the government announcing it would no longer talk about 'uninsured people,' but 'people with reduced health care access,'" he says. "It's replacing a phrase which has emotional punch for people with one that's drained of any power."

All the clinical terminology in the world can't change the fact that, according to the USDA report, more than 35 million people were living in households that are "food insecure." That means 12 percent of the U.S. population didn't get enough to eat for at least part of last year.

According to the report, things got even worse for those who are worst off. The number of people in the USDA's "very low food security" category--households in which "the food intake of some household members was reduced and their normal eating patterns were disrupted"--rose in 2005 to 10.8 million.

Hunger rates were higher for Black households (22.4 percent) and Hispanic households (17.9 percent) than the national average.

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IN SPITE of the Bush administration's claim that the economy is strong, food pantries and soup kitchens report being stretched to the breaking point.

In Battle Creek, Mich., the Food Bank of South Central Michigan is using leftover food from restaurants to fill the gap between the needs of hungry people and what corporate and private donations will buy. "This is what we call 'deep diving,'" Teresa Osborne, who leads the food bank's donor and community relations program, told the Chicago Tribune, describing collecting discarded food from local restaurants.

At the same time as the need has increased, federal food assistance to pantries, in the form of commodities like milk products and canned goods, is down about 55 percent since 2001.

Anne Lipsey, executive director of Loaves & Fishes, a food distributor and referral agency in Kalamazoo, Mich., said requests for food are increasing at a rate of as much as 15 percent a year. With about 30 percent of Kalamazoo residents living below the federal poverty line, "[w]e're seeing more adult-only households, a complex and multigenerational coming together of people, for economic reasons," Lipsey told the Tribune. "It's people living on one person's income, grandma's Social Security and disability income for Uncle Fred."

The busiest and most desperate time for pantries is at the end of the month, when food stamps run out.

In Ohio and Michigan, where hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs have been lost over the decade, food stamp use is up 65 percent in Ohio and 74 percent in Michigan from 2000 to 2005, according to the USDA.

According to a recent report by the New York Daily News, some 8,000 New York City employees--some 3 percent of the municipal workforce--use food stamps. Mayor Michael Bloomberg offered cold comfort to the city's low-paid workers. "Well, if you want to sponsor higher taxes, we'll have more money," the billionaire mayor told a Daily News reporter. "There will be always some jobs that are entry level that don't pay enough."

Though food stamp use is on the rise, it's still the case that four in 10 people who are eligible for food stamp benefits don't receive them, according to a FRAC report. In part, food stamps can be difficult to obtain, with recipients required to go through a complicated process to qualify.

"The average food stamps application is 12 pages, while the federal firearm application is two," said Aldeen from Second Harvest, which has conducted studies since 1993 of state food stamp requirements and collected interviews with applicants.

One of the most severe attacks on the food stamps program was by the Clinton administration--when it implemented the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, which dismantled the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program.

First on the chopping block were legal immigrants, who were immediately cut off food stamps. New rules made millions of childless, jobless adults ineligible, or put tough restrictions on them.

According to a July 2001 USDA report to Congress, 56 percent of the caseload declines between 1994 and 1999 "occurred because fewer eligible individuals participated in the program," rather than because of the economy or changes in eligibility rules. From December 1997 to December 2000, the food stamp caseload fell by 3.5 million, according to FRAC.

Since 2000, the food stamp rolls are on the rise again. So, too, is the demand for free school lunches and breakfasts. A record 7.7 million low-income children received free and reduced-price breakfasts on an average day during the 2005-2006 school year, according to FRAC. But it's also estimated that only two in every five children who need the breakfast program have access to it.

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EVERY DAY, people are forced to make what could be life-and-death decisions, based on poverty.

According to America's Second Harvest's Hunger in America Study 2006, 42 percent of the people they serve had to choose between paying for food and paying for utilities or heating fuel. Thirty-five percent had to choose between paying for food and paying their rent or mortgage.

It makes no sense, in a country with so much wealth and resources, that a single person goes hungry.

Funding for and access to food stamp programs and other food aid programs should be expanded. Food stamps are underfunded, with the average benefit allowing just one dollar per person, per meal, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Raising the minimum wage to a living wage--a demand that's being made by activists in cities and counties across the country--would go some way toward reducing hunger.

No one should ever have to make the decision between food, shelter or other fundamental human needs.

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