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Hunger, almost eliminated in the 70’s, is now widespread

ASK THIS | November 29, 2005

The United States is the only western industrial democracy that lets millions go hungry, including many above the poverty line, and the problem is getting worse. Dr. J. Larry Brown, who runs the Center on Hunger and Poverty at Brandeis, has questions reporters need to ask.

Q. Why has hunger resurfaced again after being essentially eliminated in the late 1970’s?


Q. Why doesn’t America end hunger like other nations have?


Q. Why are federal monies allocated to fight hunger going unspent by states and local school districts?


Q. Who are the people going hungry?


Q. What is my state doing about hunger and how does it compare with the efforts of our neighboring states?


Q. What are the correlations between economic fluctuation in state and local economies and the rates of hunger? What can be done to protect people from hunger when local economies are weak?


By J. Larry Brown



The problem of hunger in America is so large that reporters often have difficulty comprehending its scope, root causes, and impact on society. Selling editors on stories about hunger can be even harder in an age where obesity stories get all the ink.


According to government statistics, 38 million Americans live in households that suffer from hunger or food insecurity. The number of hungry mouths has increased by 43 percent in the past five years, according to the Department of Agriculture.


The United States is the only developed country with a serious hunger problem, and more than 12 million of those affected are children.


Hunger is particularly pernicious because its effects on individuals and society are varied and long lasting. Hungry children miss more days of school and can’t process information as well. They are impeded in their physical and emotional development and more prone to illness. Hunger is also associated with both aggressive and withdrawn behavior.


It is in schools where the some of the problems of hunger are being solved. The federal government covers 100 percent of the cost of feeding breakfast and lunch to low-income students, but in too many places those funds remain unspent. Reporters need to ask if that’s the case in their area, and, if so, why.


It is hard to convince editors and readers that hunger is a pressing issue because hunger is not widely understood. Obesity is widely recognized because of the obvious physical signs. Hunger, on the other hand, shows few visible symptoms to the casual observer. Hunger in America does not look like hunger in the developing world. It is not uncommon to be both obese and hungry. Eating is reflexive and instinctual. Proper nutrition is not.


Here are some sobering statistics and findings on hunger in America:


  • Households with incomes below the official poverty line have a high rate of food insecurity (36.8%), as do single female-headed households with children (33.0%), black non-Hispanic households (23.7%), single male-headed households with children (22.2%) and Hispanic households (21.7%).
  • Government programs are not always available to those who are hungry. Over 47% of all food-insecure households have incomes above 130% of poverty, which in most cases would make these households ineligible for food stamps.
  • Not all states face the same challenges. Arkansas, Missouri, North Carolina, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas all have food insecurity and hunger rates that are significantly higher than the national average. One bright spot is Oregon. Once considered to have the worst hunger in the country, Oregon has shown significant decreases in food insecurity and hunger since 1999-2001.




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