A Dream Deferred: The Right to Food in America

This year our nation commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, giving us all occasion to reflect on his civil rights aspirations and the extent to which they have been fulfilled. But the persistence of hunger in America today brings to mind Dr. King's other dream -- that of ending poverty and realizing the full spectrum of human rights, including the right to food.

Dr. King understood that social justice cannot be achieved without economic justice. In March 1965 he declared: "Let us march on poverty until no American parent has to skip a meal so that their children may eat." In the months before his assassination, Dr. King spearheaded nationwide efforts to launch a multiracial Poor People's Campaign. "We are coming to Washington," he said. "We are coming to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty."

Although he did not live to see the Campaign, those of us who believed in his dream carried it forward. In May 1968 thousands of people occupied the National Mall and demanded economic justice in the form of fair wages, decent housing, quality health care and education, and access to adequate food. Nearly fifty years later, this dream remains deferred for far too many Americans. Most starkly, we continue to treat access to food as a privilege, instead of as a fundamental human right.

The world over, freedom from hunger and access to sufficient, nutritious food are recognized as human rights. These ideas are not foreign to the United States; they were inspired by our government's commitment to ensuring "freedom from want" in the wake of the Great Depression. Now, more than ever, we must reclaim these values and ensure the right to food for all Americans.

Last month, the USDA reported that 49 million Americans live in "food insecure" households, meaning they cannot afford adequate food for themselves or their families. In other words, nearly one in six individuals in the richest country in the world is struggling to put food on the table. Hunger in the United States is not the result of a shortage of food or resources -- it is the direct result of poverty perpetuated through policies that fail to prioritize Americans' fundamental needs.

On the heels of the USDA report, the House voted to cut $40 billion over the next ten years from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) -- the nation's largest anti-poverty program. Under the House version of the farm bill, 3.8 million individuals would lose their SNAP benefits in 2014 alone, and an estimated 210,000 children would be kicked off of free school lunch programs. On November 1, SNAP recipients will see an automatic decline in their benefits when a temporary boost to the program (voted in as part of the 2009 Recovery Act) ends.

The impact of these assaults on our nutrition assistance programs will be felt over a generation and possibly beyond. Children who do not receive adequate nutrition -- including prenatally -- are at risk of serious health and developmental problems. Hungry children struggle to learn in school and, according to a report by Feeding America, are far more likely to experience behavioral problems, increasing the chance that they will drop out of school and decreasing their lifetime earning potential. By failing to adequately feed our children, we are setting them up to fail.

This is a moral failing. It is also a violation of human rights.

As the House and Senate enter negotiations over the farm bill, we must call upon them to strengthen -- not undermine -- our food safety net. A recent study by the International Human Rights Clinic at NYU School of Law found that many food insecure households do not receive SNAP benefits because the program's eligibility requirements are drawn too narrowly. For households that do qualify, the benefits are simply insufficient to meet their food-related needs. On average, families on SNAP receive under $1.50 per person per meal.

We need to fortify SNAP, ensuring that it reaches all food insecure households and enables families to afford sufficient, nutritious food. In addition, we need to adopt and implement a national strategy to tackle the root causes of hunger in America today. At minimum, we must ensure a living wage so that individuals and families can provide for themselves.

Five years from now, when we commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Poor People's Campaign, we will inevitably ask ourselves: How far have we come in fulfilling Dr. King's other dream?

Let us act now to end hunger and ensure the right to food for all.

Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., a former aide to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is the president and founder of the RainbowPUSH Coalition.

Smita Narula is a human rights lawyer and professor and co-author of the study Nourishing Change: Fulfilling the Right to Food in the United States.