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NYCCAH Sends Letter to President Obama

The Coalition has asked President Obama to publicly re-commit—and to take very concrete steps to implement—his pledge to end child hunger in America by 2015 as a down payment on ending all hunger in America, by ensuring that all children have sufficient access to nutritious, affordable food on a daily basis in a letter send this past weekend. Download the PDF of the letter here or read the letter online below.

Dear President Obama:

On behalf of the 1.5 million New York City residents who suffer from hunger and food insecurity, I congratulate you heartily on your re-election. Given that you were forced to spend your first four years as President mostly digging out of the deep holes bequeathed to you, I hope you can spend the next four years enacting more of your vision to enable all Americans to prosper through expanded economic and social opportunity.

As you well know, in this last election, low-income Americans had your back. Exit polls indicate that, had it not been for the massive turnout from Americans living in poverty, and their overwhelming support for your candidacy, you could not have been able to overcome the opposition from voters earning more than $50,000 per year. The same low-income Americans who have supported you so fervently – despite the reality that their own situations likely worsened over the last five years – now desperately hope that you have their backs. Many of them have nothing left other than hope, and they have again placed that hope in you.

I am writing to ask you to publicly re-commit – and to take very concrete steps to implement – your pledge to end child hunger in America by 2015 as a down payment on ending all hunger in America, by ensuring that all children have sufficient access to nutritious, affordable food on a daily basis.

While part of that goal can be accomplished administratively under the existing authority of the White House and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), in order to truly reach that goal, additional legislation and federal funding will be required. Consequently, at the same time we are helping to launch a national campaign to request you to carry out your child hunger pledge, we will also be taking steps to convince Congress to give you the tools with which to do so.

Ending U.S. child hunger would also help you accomplish a number of your other critical goals, including:

  • Enabling the First Lady’s Let’s Move initiative to slash child obesity;
  • Halving U.S. poverty in the next decade;
  • Ensuring that the U.S. has the best educational system in the world; and
  • Guaranteeing a broad-based, long-term, economic recovery that bolsters the middle class.

According to USDA, between 1999 and 2011, the number of children that lived in households suffering from food insecurity or hunger rose by 37 percent, from 12.1 million to 16.6 million. A staggering one in five U.S. children now live in food insecure homes, which is, by far, the highest level of child hunger in any developed Western country.

Child hunger in the world’s wealthiest nation is not only morally unacceptable, but it costs the U.S. economy at least $28 billion per year because poorly nourished children perform less well in school and require far more long-term health care spending. Further, food insufficiency severely hampers children’s emotional, intellectual, and physical development, and it strongly hinders the upward mobility of their parents. Therefore, ending child hunger is a prerequisite for truly fixing the U.S. economy and for significantly reducing poverty.

And because food insecure families are often forced to obtain cheaper food that is less nutritious, hunger and obesity are indeed flip sides of the same malnutrition coin. It will be impossible for the Let’s Move initiative to accomplish its central goals unless the nation moves far more aggressively to reduce child hunger.

As you are extraordinarily aware, many pundits argued that you were mistaken to pursue comprehensive health care reform at a time when our economy was struggling. They said it was too expensive, too complicated, or too distracting. Some will say the same thing about a comprehensive plan to end child hunger. But you argued that there was no way to fix the long-term U.S economy without fixing health care. You were right. The pundits were wrong. The election results prove that a majority of the American people already know you were right about health care, and I believe many more will agree once the full benefits of your reforms are implemented.

Given that the Beltway-based political establishment insists that we are living in a time of constrained government finances – and even more constrained vision – I have no doubt you will, again, be counseled not to take on difficult challenges such as ending domestic child hunger. They will again be wrong.

Yes, ending child hunger will require additional government funding, along with dramatically expanded public-private partnerships. But the cost of solving the problem will be far less than the tens of billions of dollars annually that child hunger is already sapping from the U.S. economy.

Of course, it’s true we need to significantly decrease the deficit. You are absolutely correct to point out that this decrease cannot be accomplished through cuts alone and that the nation still needs to make vital investments in our future. The very conservatives who created the policies that sunk our economic boat had the chutzpah to blame you for throwing life preservers (in the form of SNAP benefits) to drowning Americans.

But voters rejected that attack and overwhelmingly approved of your plan that calls for: wealthy Americans to pay their fair share, cuts in low-priority and under-performing programs, and the preservation or expansion of life-saving safety net programs of proven effectiveness.

To end hunger and food insecurity in America, I urge you to take the following steps:

1) Keep your pledge to restore the billions of dollars of SNAP benefits that were slashed in order to gain passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. SNAP is, by far, the most important tool you have to reduce hunger in America, and half of all SNAP benefits go to children. Any cuts in SNAP will increase child hunger. Thus, it is a bitter irony that a bill with the term “hunger-free kids” in its title will, if left unrepaired, actually increase child hunger in America. We were heartened that your Fiscal Year 2013 budget proposal kept your promise to call for restoration of the cuts. But we were dismayed that the Administration did not subsequently fight for this restoration. Unless you keep your pledge to restore the funding, on October 31, 2013, less than a year from today, tens of millions of struggling Americans, half of whom are children, will have their monthly food budgets reduced.

2) Support Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s proposal to increase the purchasing power of SNAP recipients to enable them to be better able to afford healthier food. Senator Gillibrand has proposed an increase in SNAP benefits from the USDA’s current “thrifty” food plan to USDA’s more substantial “low cost” food plan in order to help families purchase food for the entire month, not just the first couple of weeks. According to Moody’s economist Mark Zandi (who, as you may recall, was an advisor to Senator John McCain’s Presidential campaign), one of the fastest ways to infuse money into the economy is through expanding SNAP. He calculated that every dollar spent by the federal government on SNAP generates $1.70 worth of private sector economic activity. After all, the vast majority of food purchased with SNAP is grown, picked, processed, manufactured, shipped warehoused, wholesaled, and retailed in America – creating U.S. jobs at every step. In fact, data proves that SNAP benefits often supplement work and actually enables families to stay off cash assistance. Thus, you should proudly and firmly call for increases in SNAP spending that will slash child hunger, improve nutrition, reduce obesity, aid economic growth, and enable families to climb back into the middle class.

3) Immediately inform Congress and the public that you will veto any Farm Bill or any other measure that further cuts SNAP benefits, half of which go to children. As noted above, even if you and the Congress take no additional action, SNAP benefits will be significantly reduced in October 2013, thereby increasing hunger and harming the economy. Further SNAP cuts, on top of the already scheduled SNAP cuts, would be truly heartless and counter-productive. Although the White House noted that the Senate Farm Bill did not include all the SNAP funding you requested, we were greatly disheartened that you nevertheless supported passage of the bill, despite the fact that it would cut $4.5 billion more from SNAP. We are encouraged that the White House opposed even steeper cuts in SNAP being considered by the House, but that doesn’t remove the urgency of opposing those very harmful Senate cuts.

4) Expand funding – or at least prevent further cuts –in the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. WIC is one of the nation’s most effective social programs, improving nutrition, reducing infant mortality, and stemming child hunger. Given that WIC has prevented 500,000 babies from dying at birth, you should forcefully call out anyone who claims to be “pro-life” but is proposing a budget plan that would further cut WIC.

5) Call for major expansions in participation in federal child nutrition programs. Less than half the children in America who receive free or reduced-price school lunches receive school breakfasts. Only one in seven children who receive school lunches receives summer meals. To significantly increase participation in those and other vital child nutrition programs, you will need to both request additional federal legislation and funding and lead a major expansion of public/private child nutrition partnerships. An estimated one billion in tax dollars at the federal, state, and school district levels is spent each year solely on collecting and submitting required forms and daily meal counts for the school meals program (free, reduced-price, and full-price lunch and breakfast). Cutting this paperwork and simplifying applications could save a vast amount of money. And if the money saved were to be pumped back into feeding more children and making meals healthier, that action would reduce both hunger and obesity. Yet the focus also needs to go beyond school meals. Children are in school 180 class days out of a 365-day year, and if every student received a nutritious school breakfast and lunch every day that would still equal only about 360 meals out of the 1,095 a child needs to eat each year. We must ensure that more children participate in SNAP, summer meals, after-school snack and supper programs to further supplement the food they need.

6) Keep your pledge to dramatically expand the AmeriCorps national service program – and devote additional AmeriCorps slots for anti-hunger work. We are extraordinarily grateful that your Administration has provided funding to the New York City Coalition Against Hunger to run a nationwide AmeriCorps VISTA program, which has proven itself highly effective in boosting economic opportunity and fighting hunger. We have also effectively utilized AmeriCorps members to respond to Hurricane Sandy. Currently, thousands of AmeriCorps members fight hunger around the country full- or part-time. Yet the need is for tens of thousands of slots.

7) Reward states for improved performance in reducing child hunger. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 authorized State Childhood Hunger Challenge Grants. These grants would provide governors funding to support innovative and effective state efforts such as reducing paperwork in the SNAP program, serving breakfasts in first period classrooms, or reducing the poverty that causes hunger. Yet Congress has appropriated no money for these grants. You should fight hard to get money appropriated. Since the opposition claims they want more power to go to the States, you should challenge them to make good on that ideology by supporting these grants.

8) Ensure that all your economic policies include a laser-like focus on creating living wage jobs for low-income families in urban, rural, and suburban areas of the nation. There is no question that the single greatest way to reduce child hunger is to increase the income from work for families with children. We also hope that you keep your 2008 pledge to support an increase in the federal minimum wage. A number of states have done so already, but given that we have a national economy, there is no substitute for federal action on this front.

9) Hold a bi-partisan White House Summit on Hunger. As you know, Representative Jim McGovern has forcefully and repeatedly called for such an effort. President Nixon held the first, and to date, the only one, which resulted in very concrete anti-hunger advances. Perhaps you could ask Governor Mitt Romney to co-chair this effort with you. The summit could launch a coordinated government, private sector, nonprofit sector, and citizen service plan to end child hunger in America.

10) Personally meet with national, state, and local anti-hunger and anti-poverty leaders, as well as directly with hungry Americans, to discuss next steps. I understand that, later this week, you will be visiting New York to monitor progress in responding to Hurricane Sandy; when you do so, I hope a specific meeting with low-income New Yorkers, as well as with AmeriCorps members engaged in hurricane response, could be included in your schedule.

To follow up on any or all of these ideas, your staff can contact me at jberg@nyccah.org.

I certainly agree with one of your favorite quotes by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that the arc of history “bends towards justice.” But I hope you also agree with an equally important Dr. King statement, which he made shortly before he was martyred while fighting for increased wages for sanitation workers: “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger?”

Mr. President, no superpower in the history of the world has maintained its superpower status if it has failed to feed all its children. I hope you commit the full force of your office to ensure that America can maintain its global leadership, first and foremost by ensuring that all our children have enough nutritious food to eat.

Mr. President, please keep your promise to our kids.

Thanks you for your consideration and for your service to the nation.

Sincerely,
Joel Berg
Executive Director
New York City Coalition Against Hunger