Envisioning a hunger-free United States and a plan to get there

The commission recommends allowing Medicare and Medicaid to fund home-delivered meals for seniors. Lindsay Benson Garrett/Meals on Wheels.

By Cynthia Woodside, Bread for the World Institute

Bread members, supporters, and allies have long envisioned a United States without hunger. In this era of hyper-partisanship, envisioning a strong bipartisan plan from our political leaders about how to get there has been a bit more difficult.

In recent years, after setting ambitious goals, countries around the world, from Bangladesh and Ghana to Brazil and Great Britain, have been able to dramatically reduce hunger and poverty. And lo and behold, just this month, the National Commission on Hunger released a report with 20 bipartisan recommendations that could set the stage for a bipartisan plan to end hunger in the United States.

The commission’s report, Freedom from Hunger: An Achievable Goal for the United States of America, is an historic accomplishment. It represents the first time in decades that there has been focused bipartisan attention on policy solutions to end hunger.

The Hunger Commission was established by Congress in 2014 and consisted of nine members appointed by Republican and Democratic leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate.  Its mandate and resources were limited. Its charge was to recommend policy changes in existing U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs and current funding levels that would increase program effectiveness in combating domestic hunger and food insecurity.

The members of the commission fulfilled and then went beyond their charge. They recommended policy changes in the major federal nutrition assistance programs, and also urged action on hunger’s root causes. 

A number of recommended policy changes were focused on what the commission identifies as the most important federal nutrition program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Among the commission’s recommendations to help combat the inadequacy of current SNAP benefits: lengthening the amount of time a SNAP recipient can remain eligible following an increase in income due to employment; and creating a pilot program to test the effectiveness of raising the SNAP benefit level from USDA’s lowest amount, the Thrifty Food Plan, to the next higher level, the Low Cost Food Plan.

Bread for the World Institute’s 2016 Hunger Report, The Nourishing Effect: Ending Hunger, Improving Health, Reducing Inequality, found that the inadequacy of SNAP benefits had an undeniable, significant, and costly impact not only on hunger, but also on both health and healthcare costs. When families run out of nutritious food before the end of the month, the consequences include increases in hospital admissions, more discipline problems in school, and lower student performance on standardized tests.

While the commission suggests an increase in benefits as a pilot project, Bread for the World recommends immediate nationwide implementation. Raising benefit levels has already been shown to have a positive impact on hunger – for example, when benefits were temporarily increased during the Great Recession under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

Other welcome recommendations in the commission’s report include reforms to the Summer Meals program for children, increasing SNAP support for participants who are veterans and active duty military, and using Medicare and Medicaid to pay for home-delivered meals to seniors and people with disabilities. Bread’s 2016 Hunger Report noted that food insecurity makes both seniors and people with disabilities particularly vulnerable to poor health outcomes.   

To focus attention on root causes, the commission calls for the establishment of a White House Leadership Council to End Hunger. Such a council would be designed to foster cross-agency collaboration in addressing issues of food and nutrition, health and mental health, housing, employment, and education, among others. In addition to government officials, the commission would include strong representation of the corporate, nonprofit, university, and faith-based sectors and of people experiencing hunger.

Bread for the World wholeheartedly supports the creation of a White House-led interagency effort, with congressional participation, that would respond to food insecurity in a broader and more holistic way. We also support the commission’s call for the involvement of civil society in this high-level, goal-oriented effort.

And we not only agree with the report’s finding that “hunger in America is solvable,” we have long been working toward realizing our vision of a hunger-free nation.

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

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