February 4, 2010 | By Roger Thurow

Can't Lead Abroad While Losing at Home

In 2003, while reporting in the famine fields of Africa, I met an American aid worker who suggested I expand my research on global hunger: “You should look into hunger in America, too,” she suggested.

I moved back to the U.S. in 2005, based in Chicago for The Wall Street Journal.  Not far from our bureau was the headquarters of America’s Second Harvest, the nation’s food banking network.  It was one of my first reporting stops.

Second Harvest (now called Feeding America) was finishing up a report on hunger in America.  Its findings, compiled from surveys with its member food banks, were shocking even for veterans of the domestic hunger battle: More than 25 million Americans were dependent on food banks and soup kitchens in 2005, including more than nine million children.

Four years later, the depth of hunger in America has dramatically worsened, according to the newest survey.

Feeding America, through its network of food banks and the agencies they serve, is now providing emergency food assistance to 37 million people each year, including nearly 14 million children.  That’s a whopping 46% increase over four years ago.  It means that one in eight Americans receives food assistance from the nation’s charitable food distribution system at some time during the year.

The survey provides anecdotal backing to the report of the U.S. Department of Agriculture late last year that estimated that 49 million Americans, or 16% of the population, lived in food insecure households in 2008, meaning that they couldn’t afford enough food at some time during the year.  That included 16.7 million children.  Read together, these sets of numbers indicate that not even the extensive food bank network is reaching all the hungry in the U.S.

These findings also mirror the global reality of rapidly rising hunger.  In the past 18 months, since the food crisis of 2008 exploded with soaring prices and shrinking surpluses, the roll call of the world’s hungry swelled from about 850 million to more than one billion.

Attacking global hunger through agriculture development, particularly in Africa, has become a top foreign policy priority of the Obama administration.  But winning that fight requires conquering hunger domestically as well.

For you can’t be a leader in the global war on hunger while losing the battle at home.

At the moment, we’re losing ground on both fronts.  The community of nations kicked off the new millennium pledging to cut global hunger in half by 2015.  And President Obama came into office last year determined to end childhood hunger in America also by 2015.

Alas, those two goals have become more distant.  We’re marching in reverse at home and abroad.

The nature of hunger in Africa and America is vastly different.  Most of the hunger in the developing world is a chronic everyday grind that leads to 25,000 deaths a day.  In most cases, there simply isn’t enough food available to eat.  Starving children, if they survive, are forever stunted mentally and physically.

In America, hunger is measured by an inability to afford the next meal sometime during the year.  In America, few go totally without; the wide network of food pantries and soup kitchens enables many people in times of economic trouble to cut back on food in order to pay for housing, heating and medical treatment.  Feeding America distributes more than 2.6 billion pounds of food and grocery products to 61,000 agencies nationwide every year.  Many family budgets allow only the purchase of the cheapest, high-calorie/low nutrition food, which is why so many bodies are both obese and malnourished at the same time.

While the hunger is different, the solutions are similar: increasing incomes of the poorest.  To conquer the chronic hunger in Africa, that means elevating the productivity of small farmers.  The emphasis needs to be on food production with proper nutrition rather than food distribution, helping farmers feed their families (and growing surpluses to sell on the markets) rather than relying on food aid.  Reversing years of neglect of agriculture development and creating the conditions for African farmers to grow as much food as possible is the aim of the President’s Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative, which the administration now calls Feeding the Future.  The President’s 2011 Budget calls for $1.8 billion for this program; it is part of his commitment of at least $3.5 billion over three years, which, in turn, is part of a larger $20 billion-plus pledge from the world’s richest countries to boost agriculture development.  The targeted African countries will also be making their own substantial financial commitments to agriculture.

In the U.S., a land of plenty, availability of food is sometimes trumped by affordability. Feeding America notes that growing unemployment has been the main reason for the 46% jump in the number of people it is serving.  Its survey showed that about two-thirds of the households it serves are without work, and even those with jobs sometimes don’t make enough to assure a reliable supply of food.  Nearly 80% of the households served had annual incomes below the federal poverty level.

With these dire findings in hand, Feeding America is urging Congress to authorize the administration’s plans to increase investment in government child nutrition programs.  It is also calling for a doubling of USDA’s $250 million annual budget for buying surplus commodities for emergency food assistance programs.

Coming up with the funding, and the political will, for America to lead the hunger fight abroad and at home shouldn’t be difficult.  After all, Congress quickly conjured up $3 billion last year for its “cash for clunkers” program.  If there’s money for broken down cars, surely there’s money for hungry people.


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The first 1,000 days of a child's life is a critical time for development, where nutrition--and stability--lay the foundation for a lifetime. 

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Outrage and Inspire with Roger Thurow - Am I About to Lose My Second Child, Too?

The latest podcast in our ongoing series with Roger Thurow. Hear how even the best nutrition projects can be undermined by bad water, poor sanitation and hygiene, and lousy infrastructure.  From northern Uganda, we hear a mother’s agony when her healthy, robust child suddenly falls ill after a few sips of water…unclean water, it turned out.

Roger Thurow on SDG 2.2

Roger Thurow sat down with Farming First to talk about the individual and societal consequences of malnutrition. 




Digital Preview of The First 1,000 Days

In his new book, The First 1,000 Days, Council senior fellow Roger Thurow illuminates the 1,000 Days initiative to end early childhood malnutrition through the compelling stories of new mothers in Uganda, India, Guatemala, and Chicago. Get a first-look at photos and stories from the book in this new web interactive.

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» Order your copy of the book.


The First 1,000 Days

Roger Thurow’s book will tell the story of the vital importance of proper nutrition and health care in the 1,000 days window from the beginning of a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.

The 1,000 days period is the crucial period of development, when malnutrition can have severe life-long impacts on the individual, the family and society as a whole. Nutritional deficiencies that occur during this time are often overlooked, resulting in a hidden hunger. It is a problem of great human and economic dimensions, impacting rich and poor countries alike.

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The Last Hunger Season

In The Last Hunger Season, the intimate dramas of the farmers' lives unfold amidst growing awareness that to feed the world's growing population, food production must double by 2050. How will the farmers, Africa, and a hungrier world deal with issues of water usage, land ownership, foreign investment, corruption, GMO's, the changing role of women, and the politics of foreign aid?

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Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, award-winning writers on Africa, development, and agriculture, see famine as the result of bad policies spanning the political spectrum. In this compelling investigative narrative, they explain through vivid human stories how the agricultural revolutions that transformed Asia and Latin America stopped short in Africa, and how our sometimes well-intentioned strategies—alternating with ignorance and neglect—have conspired to keep the world’s poorest people hungry and unable to feed themselves.

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