When anti-hunger groups discussed a new report on the number of children who are either hungry or at risk of being hungry last week, they asked one question:
How can a country that can travel through space and put man on the moon be unable to feed all of its children?The Food Research and Action Center estimates that 5.5 million American children are hungry and another 6 million are at risk. A comprehensive study was conducted in several states thought to be representative of the country as a whole. The state-by-state estimates were then made, based on population and poverty data.
In Utah, one in nine children is estimated to be hungry. If you include those at risk, the number is close to one in four.
Steve Johnson, director of Utahns Against Hunger, listed some of the problems associated with hunger, besides the obvious health problems. "Hunger," he said, "compromises the ability of children to be educated." It leads to desperation and attendant social problems. It is also, he said, unnecessary.
Johnson listed two barriers to dealing with hunger in children: First, although there are nutrition programs like Women, Infants and Children (WIC), school lunch and breakfast programs and food stamps, they don't come close to reaching the number of people who would be eligible to participate in them.
Some of the programs are not universally available. Others are not well-publicized. And some parents, though poor enough to qualify, have chosen not to accept the assistance.
Programs are not fully funded. A food stamp grant is not expected to provide 100 percent of a family's nutritional needs. WIC, for instance, was intentionally funded by Congress at a level that would assist half of the people who are eligible for it, Johnson said.
The bureaucratic system may be a barrier to people who might be eligible for food stamps, he suggested. Filling out the required monthly reports is like "filling out little income tax forms."
Human Service Department workers get buried under paperwork, Johnson said. There's so much of it, in fact, that on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, clients in programs like food stamps can't see caseworkers. The offices are closed so staff can wade through paperwork.
Even when the offices are open, they are not easy for some people to visit. A large portion of the people in Utah who earn less than the federal poverty guidelines are the "working poor." And many of them can't apply for programs during standard office hours. The location of offices is also a problem for some people, particularly those who don't have their own transportation.
The second cause of hunger, he said, is that anti-hunger and other social service programs are not necessarily a priority for the elected officials who decide where the funding goes. In times of limited funding, they compete with other programs and projects across the board, and they don't always come out on top.
A study released last year by Utah Children indicated that 94,000 Utah children are hungry. And a large number of the children are at risk because of low income and hunger, according to the group's director, Roz McGee.
The statistics infuriated the Rev. Max Glenn of Shared Ministries. During a press conference with other advocates, he said he is "outraged when I see over 100,000 children in Utah go to bed hungry at night or are at risk."
We declared war on hunger 30 years ago, Glenn said. But we haven't won the battle yet. He criticized Utah lawmakers, in part, for the situation.
"We can refurbish the Salt Palace with millions. . . . We can sweeten the needs of major corporations wanting to do business in Utah," he said, adding that if Utahns paid as much attention to the issue of hunger as they do to abortion, we could end hunger.
Cathy Hoskins, who directs operation of eight food pantries in Salt Lake County for the Salt Lake Community Action Program, threw another factor into the mix: Poor people can visit a food pantry up to six times in a calendar year. There, they'll receive a three-day emergency food package. But the food given out is whatever's available and "it's not always nutritionally sound."
There are no easy, all-encompassing solutions. Throwing money into programs won't reach the people who don't believe in participating in them.
The best solution seems to be full employment at a livable wage, but that has never happened. And with an increase in technology that reduces the need for people and major growth mostly in low-paying service industry jobs, that seems unlikely.
The first step will come when Americans refuse to quit looking for solutions. And when they put the well-being of children at the top of their list of priorities.
Then food will taste better to all of us.