Seven thousand years after the world's first civilizations formed to protect human populations against hunger, the wealthiest and most powerful country in recorded history somehow finds itself unable to protect its own people from the most basic scourge of our species. Putting it this way, however, is not quite accurate. The 31 million Americans who go hungry, cut down on meal sizes because they haven't enough money to buy food, or simply have no idea where their next meal will come from, are not really the victims of inability but the failure of political leadership. After all, a nation that has unequaled wealth, extensive administrative capacity, and produces more than enough food for its people and much of the rest of the world, doesn't let its most vulnerable citizens go hungry because it cannot do better. When one sees an equation like hunger and wealth, it typically stems from dictatorship or civil strife. In the U.S., where neither is the case, what we have is old-fashioned indifference on the part of national policy makers. There exists no political payoff for ending hunger: no leader will be punished if it continues, and none will be rewarded for helping to end it... at least as things now stand. It was not always this way, not even in recent history. In the 1960s, the nation responded to reports of widespread hunger in the nation. President Richard Nixon and a Democratic Congress responded by weaving a safety net to protect our people from hunger: the food stamp program became national in scope, child nutrition programs like WIC and school breakfast were instituted, and elderly feeding programs created to guard against want during life's so-called golden years. A decade later investigating physicians found that this leadership had made a difference; where they had seen deprivation ten years earlier they now found filled stomachs. Poverty still existed, to be sure, but the poor were fed. Since the 1980s, however, hunger has returned with a vengeance, the result of small-minded policy changes that distributed wealth upward and hardship downward. Since then no president, of either party, has even acknowledged the suffering, let alone mobilized the country to address it. America has the capacity to end hunger in six months if we could convince our leaders to do so. Our nation has programs that work, and we have the administrative structures already in place. What we need is resolve, in the form of $8 to $9 billion more annually, to see that the programs reach all in need Ð an amount, by the way, that is less than one-tenth of one percent of our annual budget. But it will take pressure to get Washington officials to stop ignoring hunger or focusing on charity as an answer. They would not suggest defending the integrity of our national borders through private charities, and neither should they subject the nutritional well-being of our citizens to the vagaries of local handouts. Today, we have thousands of charitable programs doing all they can to stem the growing tide of hunger, and we commend their marvelous endurance and incredible commitment. But to actually end hunger in America, all of us must now work together to mobilize national leaders to pursue policies that protect our families and children from this fully-preventable scourge.
Actor and longtime hunger activist Jeff Bridges now chairs an entertainment industry initiative known as Hunger Free America (www.hungerfreeamerica.org). Dr. Brown, Distinguished Scientist at Brandeis University's Heller Graduate School, directs the National Center on Hunger and Poverty, a cosponsor of HFA.