Hunger in America: More Than Money is Needed

This week, Michelle Obama, in conjunction with the Corporation for National and Community Service, launched Feed A Neighbor to combat hunger in America.  While
laudable, we need to do so much more to reduce hunger in America.  We need to revisit our food policy, which provides financial and in-kind food subsidies but does little to help Americans produce or stretch their food dollars.  Stretching a dollar is something my parents knew how to do well. This helped them feed a family of nine on $125 a week during the 1960s and 70s.

My parents were able to do this, in part, because my mother learned how to plan, shop and cook for a family in her high school home economics class.  She learned how
to stretch a gallon of whole milk by mixing it with a gallon of water and instant milk powder. Or using fillers -- like bulgur wheat -- with ground beef to make eight instead of four hamburgers from a pound of meat.  In a night adult course, through the local college extension program, she learned how to incorporate inexpensive vegetarian dishes like black bean chili and pinto bean casserole into our diet.  Granted, there were many meals us kids hated -- the pinto bean casserole was a particularly wretched experience.  But, we never went hungry.  And my mom stayed on her budget.

My dad helped in the summer with his version of the Victory Garden:  tomatoes, lettuce, beans; staples that could be planted in a small, four by four plot.  Occasionally, there was a surfeit of tomatoes or beans, which my mom would can or freeze for later use.

I have been thinking about both my mother’s home economics
classes and my father’s Victory Garden since the release of the USDA’s report on hunger in America.  According to the report, there are now over 49 million Americans who are food insecure -- in other words, unable financially to feed their family -- a 36 percent increase from the previous year.  It is the single largest increase in one year since the agency began keeping records in 1995 and an embarrassment in the richest of nations.

Since the 1960s, our food policy has treated hunger as a temporary condition.  But those who work with the food insecure know that hunger is a stubbornly persistent
problem; that many who are food insecure have been so for years and even,
generations; and that families who are food insecure also have the greatest
incidence of obesity because the cheapest food is the least healthy.  They know, in short, that more is needed.  That food insecurity can only be temporary if we give Americans the tools to prevent hunger; to better connect them to the production and preparation of their food.  The tools my parents had.

There are a number of efforts to do just that including the Good Food Gardens, a
joint venture of the Food Network, Share Our Strength and Teich Garden Systems.
Initiated in 2008, there are now 13 community gardens across the country and
more are planned.  In each of these gardens, Good Food Gardens partners with community organizations to teach children and their families how to grow and prepare fruits and vegetables.

In San Francisco, a partnership between the city and Garden for the Environment created Victory Gardens, which kicked off with a garden on the grounds of City Hall and then moved
into individual resident’s backyards, teaching them how to install and care for
their own gardens.  Outside of Boston, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) created a rooftop community garden which donated a portion of the harvest to a local food bank.

But these efforts are too small on their own to reduce hunger in America.  We need the full support of the Obama Administration to push for widespread gardening and
economical food preparation education.   It can start by raising awareness of a little known or utilized Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit: SNAP monies can be used to purchase seeds and plants to grow food. Just as there are notices in grocery stores and farmer’s markets that SNAP funds can be used to purchase certain food items, so too should there be notices at home gardening stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s that fruit and vegetable seeds and plants can be purchased with SNAP
funds.  While there, participants can learn how to plant and care for their vegetable gardens at the free gardening clinics these types of stores routinely offer. The Administration can also leverage the expertise and resources of the USDA to educate Americans on how to preserve the food they produce.  And, it can learn from Franklin Roosevelt, who called on Americans during World War II to plant Victory Gardens and preserve their produce.  The response? Over 20 million Victory Gardens were planted in 1943, producing one-third of all the vegetables consumed in that year.  They purchased some 315,000 pressure cookers that year to can their produce.

The Administration can go even further by pushing for the inclusion of economical,
nutritious food planning and preparation at schools that receive funds through
the National School Lunch Program. While my mother learned how to stretch her
food dollars in home economics, my own school district, which has a significant
food insecure population, eliminated home economics classes in a cost-cutting move a few years ago.

I am sure there are even better ideas to significantly reduce the number of hungry in America.  But, we need to move beyond just aid and handouts.  We need to give Americans the tools to ward off hunger; to help the hungry feed themselves and their families with low cost, healthy food.