“Hunger in America is solvable. People in America are not hungry due to war or famine or drought.”
The above quote is from a report, released January 4th, entitled Freedom from Hunger: An Achievable Goal for the United States of America, written by the bipartisan National Commission on Hunger. This Commission is comprised of members from the fields of nutrition, medicine, hunger relief, public policy and poverty studies, who were appointed by Congressional leaders from both political parties. The Commission was charged with providing recommendations for reducing hunger in the United States using existing programs and funding. Consequently, their recommendations require a negligible amount of new resources. The Commission chose to focus on 7 groups who typically experience higher levels of hunger: seniors, single parent families with young children, people with disabilities, veterans and active duty military, American Indians, people affected by high incarceration rates and immigrants. After traveling across the country, holding public hearings and visiting numerous programs in both the government and public sector, the Commission compiled 20 sensible recommendations to reduce hunger.
After having read this report, I was encouraged by several things I read. First, I like that this Commission is bipartisan. In the polarized political climate of today to achieve anything requires buy-in from both political parties. Additionally, addressing difficult problems, like hunger and many other problems facing America today, requires many different points of view and ideas. Similarly, I think it is important that the Commission members are from several different disciplines and approach hunger from a variety of perspectives. The Commission highlighted several root causes of hunger in the United States including, labor market forces and job availability, family structure, education, exposure to violence, historical context and personal responsibility. As a result of the numerous causes of hunger, the Commission states in the report that hunger can not be eliminated solely by food assistance alone. The root causes of hunger must be understood and addressed before hunger in the United States can be eradicated.
I was similarly encouraged by the sensible recommendations the Commission puts forth in the report. Of these 20 recommendations there were about a half dozen that I was particularly pleased to read. Perhaps one of the most important recommendation I believe the Commission makes concerns the phase down of SNAP benefits as recipient income increases. In an effort to incentivize work, the Commission suggests allowing States to offer households who have become ineligible for SNAP benefits due to gaining employment, an appropriate extension of those benefits to assist them in assuring they have a sufficient amount of income in place before loosing all assistance. If this recommendation were to be put into effect, SNAP recipients would no longer automatically loose all of their benefits as soon as they earned more than the eligibility threshold, allowing them to accumulate sufficient funds to be able to adequately cover all necessary expenses and lessening their chances of slipping back into a situation where they need public assistance.
A cluster of four recommendations concern summer feeding programs and since I am currently working to establish a summer feeding program in my community I am particularly pleased at the inclusion of these recommendations. Three of these recommendations concern increasing the access to summer feeding programs in rural areas, which would benefit my rural community. Most importantly, the Commission suggests lowering the area eligibility for reimbursement for summer meals from 50% of children eligible for free or reduced school meals to 40 percent. This change would mean that more children, in areas where poverty is less concentrated, would qualify for free summer meals. The other recommendation concerning summer feeding programs encouraging to me is the suggestion to issue EBT cards for summer meals in communities where barriers to congregate feeding sites, like neighborhood violence or transportation issues related to remote living conditions, can clearly be demonstrated. In USDA pilot programs issuing EBT cards to children at risk for hunger in these communities has been proven to reduce hunger.
The list of recommendations calls for funding for the USDA to implement and evaluate several new pilot programs, assessing their effectiveness in reducing hunger. If successful these pilot programs should be implemented nationwide. Three of the four pilot programs were of particular interest to me because they suggest taking steps to move households out of poverty, instead of just keeping them from slipping further into it. The first one involves changing the SNAP benefit calculation from the Thrifty Food Plan to the Low Cost Food Plan, resulting in a more generous benefit. The second pilot program suggests raising the earning disregard from the current 20%, which may help reduce the danger of families losing benefits prior to being ready to transition to self sufficiency. The third suggested pilot program, which serves as a hand up rather that merely a handout, involves increasing the maximum excess shelter deduction/allowance in SNAP. Raising the shelter allowance to more realistically account for the actual cost of housing, particularly in markets with high housing costs, could result in a lack in hunger as more household funds are available for food.
Finally, the Commission concluded their list of recommendations with a call for collaboration across governmental departments and between the public and private sector. The Commission calls for the creation of a White House Leadership Council to End Hunger. Representation on this Council will include members from numerous governmental agencies, including but not limited to the Departments of Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services and Veteran Services, as well as the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. In addition to these governmental departments and agencies, the Council would include members from the corporate, non-profit, university and faith-based sectors. Lastly, community leaders and those experiencing hunger will also have representation on the Council. The White House Leadership Council to End Hunger will be charged to develop a coordinated plan to end hunger by collaboration across agencies and to integrate funding streams and eligibility and delivery systems.
In this election year, in a highly polarized political climate, I do not know how likely the enactment of any of these recommendations are. I do take heart in the fact that the Commission is bipartisan and came to unanimous conclusions. The recommendations they put forth are sensible and require negligible additional resources to implement. Additionally, they call for action from both government and civic agencies, as no entity alone can solve the problem. Lastly, the report acknowledges that the root causes of hunger are many and all of them need to be addressed before any action to eliminate hunger can be expected to succeed, but succeed we can.