May 12, 2010
The New York Times
By STEPHANIE STROM
The Wal-Mart Corporation announced plans on Wednesday to contribute $2
billion in cash and food to the nation’s food banks, one of the largest
corporate gifts on record.
Over the next five years, the giant retail company will distribute some 1.1
billion pounds of food to food banks and provide $250 million to help those
organizations buy refrigerated trucks, improve storage and develop better
“Hunger is just a huge problem, and as the largest grocer in the country, we
need to be at the head of the pack in doing something about it,” said Margaret
McKenna, president of the Wal-Mart Foundation.
While the economy seems to be turning around, the number of people turning to
charities to help put food on their tables continues to grow. A recent survey by
Feeding America found that 37 million people a year now use its national network
of food banks, a 46 percent increase from 2006. The survey drew on interviews
with more than 61,000 people who use food banks, as well as reports from 37,000
food banks across the country.
Put another way, 1 in every 8 Americans uses a food bank to make ends meet, the
More than one-third of those surveyed said they would not have been able to pay
for basics like rent, utilities and medical care without relying on food banks
to offset the cost of their meals — and more than a third said at least one
person in their household was working.
“It is not just the unemployed that are going hungry,” said Vicki B. Escarra,
chief executive of Feeding America.
Wal-Mart began taking on hunger as a cause in 2005, when it distributed 9.9
million pounds of food to food banks; last year, it provided 116.1 million
pounds of food. The company also has donated the services of its staff to help
food banks improve lighting and refrigeration, and develop ways to increase the
amount of fresh food on their shelves.
“We’ve learned a lot about this problem and the kinds of things we can do to
help,” Ms. McKenna said. “We’ve learned, for instance, that there is a huge gap
in terms of the protein and fresh produce that food banks can deliver, so we’ve
learned how to fast-freeze things like meat and dairy. You can’t put 100 pounds
of bananas on a truck that isn’t refrigerated and expect them to be edible for
Almost one-third of the food Wal-Mart is donating this year will be fresh, and
one of the first cash gifts out of the new grant will go to increasing the
number of refrigerated trucks delivering food to food banks. “These are the
types of resources we don’t get much from other sources,” Ms. Escarra said.
Wal-Mart and other companies currently are focused on how to get food to
children to expose them to fruits, vegetables and meats that traditionally have
not been available to poor families because of limited supplies or high cost.
For instance, the Target Corporation on Tuesday announced a $2.3 million program
to create pantries in schools that can be used to teach children about good
nutrition at the same time they are fed.
Target provided an additional $1.2 million to Feeding America to support other
school-based feeding programs.
Ms. McKenna said she was concerned about getting food during the summer to
children who rely on school breakfast and lunch programs. “We know about sending
kids home with backpacks of food for the weekends,” she said, “but what do we do
to feed them when they aren’t going to school?”
November 17, 2009
The New York Times
By JASON DePARLE
WASHINGTON — The number of Americans who lived in households that lacked
consistent access to adequate food soared last year, to 49 million, the highest
since the government began tracking what it calls “food insecurity” 14 years
ago, the Department of Agriculture reported Monday.
The increase, of 13 million Americans, was much larger than even the most
pessimistic observers of hunger trends had expected and cast an alarming light
on the daily hardships caused by the recession’s punishing effect on jobs and
About a third of these struggling households had what the researchers called
“very low food security,” meaning lack of money forced members to skip meals,
cut portions or otherwise forgo food at some point in the year.
The other two-thirds typically had enough to eat, but only by eating cheaper or
less varied foods, relying on government aid like food stamps, or visiting food
pantries and soup kitchens.
“These numbers are a wake-up call for the country,” said Agriculture Secretary
One figure that drew officials’ attention was the number of households, 506,000,
in which children faced “very low food security”: up from 323,000 the previous
year. President Obama, who has pledged to end childhood hunger by 2015, released
a statement while traveling in Asia that called the finding “particularly
The ungainly phrase “food insecurity” stems from years of political and academic
wrangling over how to measure adequate access to food. In the 1980s, when
officials of the Reagan administration denied there was hunger in the United
States, the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington advocacy group, began
a survey that concluded otherwise. Over time, Congress had the Agriculture
Department oversee a similar survey, which the Census Bureau administers.
Though researchers at the Agriculture Department do not use the word “hunger,”
Mr. Obama did. “Hunger rose significantly last year,” he said.
Analysts said the main reason for the growth was the rise in the unemployment
rate, to 7.2 percent at the end of 2008 from 4.9 percent a year earlier. And
since it now stands at 10.2 percent, the survey might in fact understate the
number of Americans struggling to get adequate food.
Rising food prices, too, might have played a role.
The food stamp rolls have expanded to record levels, with 36 million Americans
now collecting aid, an increase of nearly 40 percent from two years ago. And the
American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed last winter, raised the average
monthly food stamp benefit per person by about 17 percent, to $133. Many states
have made it easier for those eligible to apply, but rising applications and
staffing cuts have also brought long delays.
Problems gaining access to food were highest in households with children headed
by single mothers. About 37 percent of them reported some form of food
insecurity compared with 14 percent of married households with children. About
29 percent of Hispanic households reported food insecurity, compared with 27
percent of black households and 12 percent of white households. Serious problems
were most prevalent in the South, followed equally by the West and Midwest.
Some conservatives have attacked the survey’s methodology, saying it is hard to
define what it measures. The 18-item questionnaire asks about skipped meals and
hunger pangs, but also whether people had worries about getting food. It ranks
the severity of their condition by the number of answers that indicate a
“Very few of these people are hungry,” said Robert Rector, an analyst at the
conservative Heritage Foundation. “When they lose jobs, they constrain the kind
of food they buy. That is regrettable, but it’s a far cry from a hunger crisis.”
The report measures the number of households that experienced problems at any
point in the year. Only a “small fraction” were facing the problem at a given
moment. Among those with “very low food security,” for instance, most
experienced the condition for several days in each of seven or eight months.
James Weill, the director of the food center that pioneered the report, called
it a careful look at an underappreciated condition.
“Many people are outright hungry, skipping meals,” he said. “Others say they
have enough to eat but only because they’re going to food pantries or using food
stamps. We describe it as ‘households struggling with hunger.’ ”
If you think people do not go hungry in America, you’re wrong. At last count
in 2005, 35 million low-income Americans — about a third of them children —
lived in households that cannot consistently afford enough to eat. Since 2005,
the situation has most likely become worse. Last year, real wages for low-income
workers were still below 2001 levels. This year, job growth is slowing and
prices are rising.
And each year, the federal food stamp program — the bulwark against hunger for
26 million Americans — does less to help. In large part, that is because a key
component of the formula for computing most families’ food stamps has not been
adjusted for inflation since 1996. Over all, food stamps now average a meager
$1.05 per person per meal.
Bolstering food stamps must be Congress’s top priority in this year’s farm bill,
the mammoth legislation that covers the food stamp program.
Most important, lawmakers must stop the erosion in the purchasing power of food
stamps, either by pegging the benefit formula to inflation or by making a big
increase in the formula’s standard deduction. In 2002, when the last farm bill
was passed, Congress improved the benefit formula for households with four or
more people. But nearly 80 percent of all food stamp households have three or
fewer members. It is unacceptable that their food stamps buy less food each
Congress should also repeal the provision that imposes a five-year residency
requirement on otherwise eligible adult legal immigrants. (Illegal immigrants
are not eligible for food stamps.) The children of such immigrants — 80 percent
of whom are United States citizens — can receive food stamps without waiting.
But confusion over the rules keeps many of them out of the program. The
Department of Agriculture reports that of the children of immigrant parents who
are citizens and eligible for food stamps, only 52 percent got them in 2004,
compared with 82 percent of eligible children over all.
Taken together, those two reforms would cost roughly $3 billion over the next
five years. In the competitive frenzy of a farm bill, that is money lawmakers
would be inclined to fight over. But Democrats and Republicans alike must
realize that improving food stamps is a moral and economic necessity. Food stamp
allotments were cut in 1996 to free up money to ease the transition from welfare
to work. But since then, food stamps themselves have become a crucial support
for working families. Among food stamp households with children, twice as many
work as rely solely on welfare.
Inadequate aid affects not only the amount of food a family can buy, but also
the types of purchases. With too few dollars to spend, junk food becomes the
best value because it is calorie dense, cheap and imperishable.
Adjustments around the edges of the food stamp program will not be enough.
President Bush has proposed exempting families’ meager retirement savings when
calculating whether they are poor enough for food stamps. He also wants to allow
families to deduct their full child care costs from the benefit calculation.
Both changes would be helpful and Congress should embrace them. But Congress
also needs to make much bigger changes, now.