Hunger isn’t a new concept and it isn’t a new problem. We’ve been fighting hunger for a long time and, while we’ve made significant strides in recent decades, there is no end to this problem in sight.
We know that hunger transcends age, race, and gender. In the most difficult economic times, like the recession we’re still slowly recovering from today, even the middle class is not immune from hunger.
The face of hunger today isn’t the one we’re used to seeing. Most people still think of the sunken eyes and swollen bellies of poor children in a far-off African country. They don’t think of an overweight or obese neighbor; they don’t think of a chronically ill senior citizen; they don’t think of an underachieving student in their neighborhood school.
But those are the faces of hunger in the 21st century. People are grappling with food insecurity all around us. More than 50 million people in the United States, including nearly 17 million children, live in families that struggle to put food on the table. Food-insecure families are often forced to make difficult choices between important necessities, like choosing between groceries or paying for rent, medical care, transportation, or utilities. Low-income families are forced into a diet of low-cost, high-calorie, nutrient-deficient foods. Hunger can impact an adult’s ability to maintain good health and hold down a job, and it can cripple a child’s ability to concentrate and perform well in school.
It’s not a lack of food or know-how that’s allowing hunger to persist in America. We have the food, resources and knowledge to tackle and beat food insecurity. We do. We know how to get the job done. Yet the problem persists and even grows, and that’s simply due to a lack of political will. Hunger is, in the end, a political condition.
That’s why I have called for a White House Conference on Food and Nutrition. It’s simple: We need the President to seize this issue. We need the President to stand up and say this is a national priority, one that we will take on sooner rather than later.
I’m grateful for the work the First Lady has done on nutrition and healthy eating. We are learning more and more about healthy food and fitness thanks to her efforts. But we do a disservice to that effort if we don’t address food insecurity at the same time.
This is the time for real leadership—Presidential leadership—on this issue. Only the President can knock down the bureaucratic walls that prevent different agencies from working together. Only the President can bring together the various leaders of industry, academia, social entrepreneurship and public policy. Only the President can stand up and say hunger is a national issue; an issue that we can and will solve.
In 2008, it was my privilege to be the person to announce then-candidate Obama’s pledge to end childhood hunger by 2015. I flew to Iowa to make that announcement, and at the time I believed it was possible to achieve that goal.
Unfortunately, we’re not going to end childhood hunger by 2015—at least not at this rate. But it doesn’t mean we should hide from that pledge. This is a seminal moment in our fight to eradicate hunger in America. A White House Conference on Food and Nutrition that brings together public- and private-sector leaders at the local, state and national level—harnessing their energy, innovation and resources that are necessary to end hunger—would elevate the issue in the eyes of all Americans. If the White House agrees to host a meaningful, productive Conference, one where we develop benchmarks and goals, one that gives everyone an achievable assignment, one that fully addresses hunger across all ages, then we will have truly achieved something worth celebrating.
President Richard Nixon hosted the first, and so far only, White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health in 1969. Under his leadership, the food stamp program (now SNAP) was modernized, the Woman, Infants and Children program (WIC) was created, and the nation made giant strides in working to end hunger. We made real progress—and now we must go further.
I want President Obama to be the President who ends hunger. I want him to be the President that ensures the future of our nation by making it healthier, both through better eating and by making sure everyone has access to nutritious food. Making these hopes a reality all starts with a White House Conference on Food and Nutrition.
We are the richest, most powerful nation on Earth, and it is a national disgrace that so many of our fellow citizens are hungry. It is a moral failure and one that costs us dearly, pushing up healthcare costs and hampering children’s capacity for learning in school.
It’s time to act boldly. We can end hunger.