Solutions for Food Insecurity and Ending Hunger in America

In light of a recent study that African-Americans are twice as likely to face food insecurity, Joel Berg, the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, speaks to about solutions to hunger.

Twenty-five percent of Black households lack access to enough food to build a healthy lifestyle, according to Feeding America's "Map the Meal Gap" study.
The World Food Summit of 1996 defined food security as all people having access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.

African-American households are twice as likely to face food insecurity than white, non-Latino homes. Of the 104 U.S. counties with a majority Black population, 92 percent of them have food insecurity. Most of these counties are concentrated in Southern states such as Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, Georgia and Louisiana. 
The government's WIC and SNAP programs help feed millions of hungry households in the U.S. WIC is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. The program helps nearly 9 million people monthly obtain nutritious foods, nutrition counseling and referrals to health care and social  services.
SNAP provides nutritional assistance to millions of eligible, low-income individuals and families. House Republicans on Thursday voted to cut $39 billion in funding from the food stamp program, a change that would affect 4 million Americans in the next decade. The president is expected to veto the bill.

Politics aside, the solutions to hunger would not be hard to implement, according to Joel Berg, the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. Berg says it would take $30 billion to $35 billion to solve a problem that costs the U.S. government $167.5 billion a year.

Berg, 48, has advocated against poverty and for social justice issues since he was 14 and served eight years on the Clinton administration, working on hunger issues. He recently spoke to about the many causes of hunger in the African-American community, the long-term effects it has on children and what we can all do to help those in need. Could you speak on the reasons why African-Americans are disproportionately affected by food insecurity? 

Joel Berg: There’s no question that African-Americans are disproportionately in poverty and since the main cause of hunger is poverty, if a population is more likely to be poor, they’re more likely to be hungry and food insecure.

When people are relatively poor and aggregate, they’re less likely to afford healthier food, they’re less likely to be able to afford health care, and therefore they’re more hungry. They’re more likely, ironically, to become obese because they have less healthy food options they can afford. And they’re less likley to be healthy and more likely to miss work or not be able to find a job, or keep a job, because of their health. So it is a sort of vicious cycle.

For children specifically, how does food insecurity affect them in the long-term? 

There’s no question that nutrition impacts the health of a fetus and the health of a baby at birth.
And I challenge politicians who claimed to be pro-life to stop cutting WIC, which has actually saved babies from dying. Let’s get real. So it starts in the womb and it continues to birth. Malnourished kids are less likely to be healthy. They’re less likely to have proper brain growth. They’re less likely to have proper growth of the body. We have a boatload of evidence [that] they’re less likely to do well in school. I’ll give you my two rhymes for the day, “Schools must be fueled. To be read you must be well fed.” My Dr. Seuss moment there.

And so my long answer is the level of food insecurity that we have in America has a devastating impact on every single component of society. That’s why the Center for America in Progress concluded that hunger costs our society $167.5 billion a year in lost cost to our economy. 

So it would be cheaper to just make sure everyone’s fed, basically?

We could easily end hunger in a year for $30 to $35 billion. So they could increase food purchasing power for low-income people. Now some of that could be higher wages, some of that could be increased food stamps or WIC benefits but to solve a problem that costs us $167 billion a year with $30 or $35 billion, it seems to me, that’s a pretty big deal. 

How can businesses help in the fight against food security?

The number one thing businesses can do is create jobs and make sure they pay a living wage. Two, food companies can certainly donate food. Lastly, they too can use our hunger volunteer website to engage their employees in more effective ways to fight hunger.

What can everyday people do, especially those who do have time and money to help this cause?

I think that people should act both with their heads and their hearts. A lot of people only sort of act with their hearts and they really ought to think logically about this. Food drives are extraordinarily inefficient. They take a lot of money to buy these cans when in fact, you get a lot more money if you donate money to a feeding organization or they just buy wholesale, that’s number one.

Number two, we want people to do something more effective to raise money, not food. We want people, if they have accounting skills, to help a small pantry kitchen get their accounting in order. If they have Web design skills, help agencies design Webs. If they have PR skills, help improve the newsletter or help get media for some of these groups. If you have a nutrition background, teach nutrition, education, the legal background, a lot of small non-profits really need people. Have more people consider serving on boards of small non-profits. They want people to volunteer to help people get food stamps benefits and volunteer projects to help kids get some meals.

And they want people to engage in policy that’s constantly being contemplated by Congress now, which would dramatically increase hunger in America. The American political system’s actually pretty responsive to the pressure. Most of the time when they get away with the warped things they do it’s because the public is lying down or ignoring them [issues], but when people fight back, they can make a real difference. 

What needs to happen to see the country not be impacted by hunger?

I think they need to raise the minimum wage. I think we need a New Deal jobs program. Again, I know that there are many unemployed white people and there are many wealthy African-Americans. That being said, there’s no question the unemployment rate in the African-American community is particularly high. The unemployment rate is particularly high for young African-American men and I just think we need a major jobs program including the AmeriCorps National Service Program, which you may be familiar with, that President Bill Clinton started and President Obama expanded, which allows people to pay for college by serving their communities. That should be dramatically expanded. The education award should be dramatically increased.

Anything else you would like to add?

There’s a recent study that 90 percent of all African-Americans at some point in their family history will access the SNAP program and yet many, many folks who have done so have become incredibly successful in life, corporate executives, doctors, lawyers, entertainers, athletes. In fact, President Obama is the first president in history whose family at one point got SNAP benefits. He wasn’t living there at the time but his mother, who was a nursing student, did get SNAP benefits.

And so the notion we’re pushing is that people make it on SNAP and it’s a temporary help to get people back on their feet. We all need help from the government sometimes.

What are the options for someone living with food insecurity?

If they qualify as low income, they should definitely apply for the SNAP program and call 1-866-3-HUNGRY or 1-866-348-6479 to learn how to apply to some of these programs.

The New York City Coalition Against Hunger has a program called Ending Hunger Through Citizen Service and the website, which provides more information for you or your organization to learn how to take action in the fight against hunger and food insecurity. 

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(Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

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