Hunger crisis

Hunger in the world’s richest country, the United States, has touched record levels. According to a report by the US department of agriculture, around 14.7 per cent of American households were ‘food insecure’ in 2009, with 5.7 per cent falling in the ‘very low food security’ category. This is the highest level of food insecurity in the US since 1995, when food insecurity was surveyed for the first time ever. A quarter of those who go to bed hungry in the US are children. The report draws attention to a clear racial dimension to food insecurity. It found that African-American and Hispanics were worst affected. Households that were headed by single parents were also found to be more vulnerable to hunger. Hunger and food insecurity have long been regarded as concerns of the developing world. The USDA report reveals that the severity of the problem among the poor in rich countries is no less worrying. Recession and the resulting unemployment have taken a very heavy toll. It has manifested in the hunger crisis in the US.

There is a silver lining, however. Food insecurity has not worsened significantly since 2008 despite the fact that the number of unemployed rose from 9 million to 14 million in the same period. An important reason for food insecurity not matching the sharp rise in unemployment is that the reach of the food safety net was expanded. Thus many who might have fallen prey to hunger were able to avoid it because of the food and nutrition programmes. For instance, 5 million people more benefited from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme (SNAP), bringing the total number of SNAP beneficiaries in 2009 to 42 million. Had these programmes not existed the food insecurity crisis in 2009 would have been alarming.

The USDA report provides useful pointers not just for the US but for the world. A rich country, even one that is the world’s only superpower, cannot escape hunger if its policies are aimed at making the rich richer. It serves as a reminder that safety nets are necessary to prevent the poor from crashing down especially in times of economic crisis. There are lessons for India too. Food and nutrition programmes need to be expanded so that our poor, who are struggling with the devastating impact of economic liberalisation, do not have to go to bed hungry.

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