Obama's pledge to end childhood hunger by 2015 is struggling

Posted: February 18, 2013

In 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama pledged to end childhood hunger by 2015.

Five years, two elections, and one recession later, the lofty vow is nowhere near a reality.

Nearly 17 million American children struggled with hunger in 2011, the latest number available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"It was a realistic pledge, but it's no longer realistic now," said Mariana Chilton, a professor at Drexel University's School of Public Health and a national expert on childhood hunger. "If the president had set up a national plan when he was first elected, it might have worked. But now, I don't see things getting any better."

Earlier this week in his State of the Union address, Obama talked about raising the minimum hourly wage to $9 and establishing universal pre-school, both of which could impact childhood hunger in various ways, experts say.

But at a time when the food-stamp program faces cuts, when the Women, Infants and Children supplemental food and nutrition program (WIC) may lose money through budget wrangling, and when so many parents can work in low-wage jobs and still not rise out of poverty - the idea of ending childhood hunger two years from now seems fanciful.

"We're moving in the wrong direction," said Julie Zaebst, policy manager with the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.

Patrick Druhan, director of food resources and nutrition for the Montgomery County Community Action Development Commission, agreed: "The mood in Washington is for cutbacks. I don't know how the president could get to his goal."

In Philadelphia, nearly 22 percent of children are described as being food insecure - lacking access to adequate food because of a dearth of money, according to figures from Feeding America, the nation's leading domestic hunger-relief charity.

The suburban counties recorded a range of 14 percent to 15 percent child food insecurity. In South Jersey, child food insecurity in the congressional districts including Gloucester and Camden Counties rivals Philadelphia's level, Feeding America research shows.

"And these numbers are conservative," said Chilton.

When children don't get enough to eat, their health, their brain development - their very futures - are imperiled, noted Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs, a Washington nonprofit.

Impeding candidate Obama's pledge was the worst recession in generations.

When people lose jobs, they lose the ability to feed their families, said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), the country's leading antihunger advocacy group.

"After a huge economic collapse," Weill said, "the bottom half of the population was much weaker than it was when the president made that pledge."

Obama has tried to forestall disaster, experts say. He's credited with strengthening both the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, which aid low-income Americans.

Also, the Affordable Care Act was seen as a way to help poor people with their medical bills, and by extension, keep hunger at bay, Weill said.

The president also temporarily bolstered the food-stamp program (now called SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) with $26 billion in federal stimulus money. The average family's benefits increased by 20 percent, government figures show.

But soon, changes will come to SNAP, a primary element of the safety net.

The boost to SNAP was supposed to expire in 2015. But to help pay for a nationwide initiative to improve the nutrition of school meals in 2010, Obama and Congress agreed to allow the stimulus injection to expire by Nov. 1.

Ironically, "the president has actually impeded our efforts to alleviate childhood hunger," according to Craig Gunderson, a professor of agriculture and economics, and an expert on food insecurity at the University of Illinois.

"Taking money from SNAP for healthy eating initiatives hurts," Gunderson said. "Healthy eating is good, but it has nothing to do with keeping children from going hungry."

As a result of the change, families of four will see a cut in SNAP benefits of around $25 a month, Zaebst said. After Nov. 1, SNAP benefits will average about $1.30 per person per meal, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

But that's not the end. Also in the fall, Congress will brandish its knives.

The Senate has a plan to eliminate $4.5 billion from SNAP's $80 billion annual budget over 10 years. The House's plan is more ambitious, taking $16 billion out of SNAP. As many as five million people could lose all their benefits, Zaebst said.

WIC, too, is in trouble. It could see a 5.1 percent cut because of sequestration, the triggering of automatic spending cuts that the government potentially faces. That would remove 600,000 participants from the rolls of a program that both Democrats and Republicans heartily endorse, said Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.

In Pennsylvania, 17,000 would be pushed off the rolls; in New Jersey, 11,000, Berg said.


Contact Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com

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