Coming Up: Recommendations on U.S. Hunger

December 3, 2015
Federal safety-net programs like the free- and reduced-price lunch program helps keep families out of poverty. Photo by Joseph Molieri/Bread for the World

By Cynthia Woodside, Bread for the World Institute

In testimony before the House Agriculture Committee on November 18, the co-chairs of the National Commission on Hunger, Mariana Chilton of the Dornsife School of Public Health at Drexel University and Robert Doar of the American Enterprise Institute, gave a preview of the commission’s report, which will be released in the coming weeks.  

The National Commission on Hunger is new, created by Congress in 2014. It’s a 10-member bipartisan group of experts, appointed by the majority and minority leaders in both chambers of Congress. Its mandate is to recommend policies to Congress and the Secretary of Agriculture to “more effectively use existing programs and funds of the Department of Agriculture [USDA] to combat domestic hunger and food insecurity; and to develop innovative recommendations to encourage public-private partnerships, faith-based sector engagement, and community initiatives to reduce the need for government assistance programs, while protecting the safety net for the most vulnerable members of society.”

The commission’s work can be a critical piece in addressing Goal 2 of the Sustainable Development Goals – to end hunger and improve nutrition in the United States and around the world by 2030. The commission’s recommendations can jumpstart a needed national conversation about what the administration, Congress, and civil society can do in the short term and the longer term to address hunger. 

At the hearing, the co-chairs emphasized that the report’s specific recommendations, not yet finalized, are to be agreed upon unanimously. Such a consensus will likely leave both sides of the political spectrum unsatisfied, but hopefully will lay the groundwork for meaningful steps to be taken against hunger—even in an election year.

In addition to recommendations for solutions and improvements, the co-chairs indicated that the report will define hunger and its consequences, name the root causes of hunger, and identify populations that warrant special concern. The commission will use the terms “food insecurity” and “very low food security,” which have precise definitions validated by extensive research at USDA. The commission’s plan is to identify ways to improve programs for households with very low food security, defined as households where at least one person faces disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake because of lack of money for food. Bread for the World considers very low food security to be hunger. The most recent data, for 2014, show 6.9 million such households in our country.

The co-chairs said that the commission’s research has determined that federal nutrition assistance programs such as SNAP, WIC, and school meals are effective tools in responding to hunger, but that they are insufficient to end hunger. According to their testimony, the safety net programs provide a strong foundation, but without a focus on the root causes, hunger will continue.

It will come as no surprise to Bread members that the commission’s research found that people at greater risk of having very low food security include groups such as those who are unemployed or under-employed, those without a high school diploma, and those in households headed by a single parent. Other groups at greater risk include African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, seniors, people with disabilities, veterans, ex-offenders/returning citizens, and immigrants. Bread for the World would add “children” to the list of those warranting special concern, since households with children are far more likely to be food insecure than those without children. Sadly, one of the groups most at risk of food insecurity in the United States is children younger than 3. And it has become increasingly clear how critical it is for very young children to get good nutrition. Hunger in early childhood can carry lifelong consequences for children’s health, education, and employment.

The co-chairs noted five broad themes in their testimony about the upcoming report:   

  1. Jobs. Recommendations may include helping recipients of nutrition assistance find work, improving work incentives in assistance programs, and requiring evaluations of states’ performance in helping employable recipients get jobs with sufficient wages.
  2. Health. Recommendations may include using the nutrition programs to ensure healthy choices among recipients and using evidence-based strategies to encourage good nutrition and promote health.
  3. Civic engagement. Recommendations may include encouraging “neighbors helping neighbors” efforts in communities, increasing access to and coordination among the essential safety net programs, and improving support for military families.
  4. Experimentation. Recommendations may include testing new ideas by conducting and evaluating pilot programs.
  5. Collaboration. Recommendations may include plans to institute cross-sector, cross-agency collaboration, supported by Congress and led by the White House, to address the root causes of hunger. This collaboration could include, at a minimum, the Departments of Health and Human Services, Education, Labor, Agriculture, and Veterans Affairs.  

It is heartening that the National Commission on Hunger’s testimony affirmed that reducing hunger is “a question of values – no one in a country as rich as ours should go hungry” and “should be an urgent priority of Congress.” We also are encouraged that the testimony supports Bread’s longtime emphasis on the need to establish a comprehensive, interconnected set of strategies that target the root causes of hunger. We look forward to reviewing the commission’s final recommendations.

Cynthia Woodside is senior domestic policy analyst at Bread for the World Institute.

Hunger in early childhood can carry lifelong consequences for children’s health, education, and employment.

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