Advocates want hunger issue a top priority

Almost half of American voters say they are living paycheck to paycheck as food prices rise and the country's economic woes deepen, reports the Alliance to End Hunger.

In an Election Day survey of 1,000 voters nationwide, the alliance found major concerns developing around what it calls "food insecurity." Three in five voters -- 59 percent -- said they were impacted by high food prices. Slightly less than half -- 49 percent -- said they see hunger growing worse. Nearly one in five -- 19 percent -- say they fear that they or someone they know will go hungry.

Additionally, almost everyone responding -- 94 percent -- said they believe hunger is just as much of a problem in other countries.

Such responses show an underlying lack of confidence in current economic conditions, anchored in part by a 7.5 percent increase in food prices during the last year. They also do not bode well for a quick financial recovery unless any new economic stimulus plan is directed to the lower end of the economic ladder, said the Rev. David Beckmann, alliance president.

"When we talk about the economic crisis, we're not giving enough attention to the fact that people who are getting hardest hit by the crisis are people who are not able to feed their children any more," Rev. Beckmann told Catholic News Service during a break in the alliance's annual meeting Nov. 6, when the findings were released.

"The moral imperative is clear," he said, explaining that the country must make ending hunger and overturning poverty domestically and internationally a priority. That comes, in part, by creating broader awareness of poverty and building support for aid and development programs, especially around food, he said.

A Lutheran minister, Rev. Beckmann believes worldwide hunger deserves the same attention, especially as some parts of the world are experiencing food shortages. Rioting over food shortages has occurred across Africa, southern Asia and Haiti throughout 2008.

"This is not about the stock market. This is about child death," he said.

The survey's results parallel the realities on the ground among Catholic Charities agencies across the country. An October survey of 44 local Catholic Charities operations by Catholic Charities USA found that 88 percent of the agencies reported significantly more families and individuals seeking assistance. The number of people seeking food assistance is up at three-quarters of the agencies.

Leading the way were senior citizens, the working poor and the middle class as they turned to Catholic Charities agencies for food and for help with utility, rent and mortgage payments.

Gus Hernandez, senior family resource specialist at Catholics Charities in Fresno, Calif., said the agency's client base has nearly tripled during 2008 from 40 to 50 families a day to an average of 143 a day. The agency has reduced its operating hours to prevent its shelves from going bare on any one day.

"We've been proactive," Hernandez said. "We just conducted a food drive last weekend and we'll have another in the next two weeks. The community has responded well to our request. It's been a good collaboration."

Likewise, Catholic Services of Utah has seen a 185 percent increase in requests for food boxes. In Omaha, Neb., five times as many people have turned to Catholic Charities for housing assistance as they struggle to combat unemployment and higher food prices.

The crisis facing low-, moderate- and middle-income families presents the country with the opportunity to make fighting hunger and poverty a priority, the alliance's Rev. Beckmann said.

The alliance, of which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is a part, has targeted 2015 for eliminating child hunger in the United States. The advocacy group also called for major policy changes to reduce global hunger and poverty over the same period.

Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., and Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., have been congressional allies in the fight against hunger both in the U.S. and around the world. Joining the alliance's annual meeting, the two legislators called on President-elect Barack Obama to appoint a "food czar" to oversee domestic and international food policy.

The position is called for in the Global Food Security Act, which was introduced in Congress earlier this year, but has not been acted upon. Lugar said he plans to reintroduce the bill in the next Congress.

McGovern called hunger a "political condition."

"We have the opportunity to redefine our priorities, not only domestically but globally. ... We have the ability to solve hunger. What has been a problem for a long time is that we haven't been able to muster the political will," he said.

Rev. Beckmann finds that the legislation will be a much-needed boost to ending food insecurity for millions of people worldwide, not just in the U.S., and for helping begin an economic turnaround in the global financial crisis.

"With just a little bit of facilitation we can free up the intense desire of poor people around the world to get out of poverty. That is tremendous motivation for economic recovery. They really are a buoyant part of the global economy," he said.

Between 1990 and 2005, the number of people living in extreme poverty -- those living on less than $2 per day -- declined by 500 million worldwide, thanks to local and regional initiatives that promoted development, self-sufficiency and education. While the trend has slowed since 2006 because of the economic downturn, Rev. Beckmann is hopeful that attacking hunger globally will lead to a quicker turnaround.

"I believe that God is moving in our time to liberate people from hunger, poverty and disease," he said. "The progress that the world is making is an experience of the saving God in our history. Right now poor and hungry people are suffering a big setback, but I remain really hopeful. This is God moving in our time."

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here