- The Washington Times - Monday, June 4, 2007

Hunger in America leads to $90 billion a year in societal costs, such as mental-health problems that may arise when people miss too many meals, a study says.

“We realize that there are some 35 million people in our country that are at risk of hunger or going hungry every day,” said Stephen J. Brady, president of Sodexho Foundation, which commissioned the report, “The Economic Cost of Domestic Hunger.”

“It’s important to inform the public debate and help the public understand that fact and put it into terms that are meaningful,” he said.

The report estimates that the nation spends $14.5 billion a year on charitable anti-hunger efforts, such as food banks, local feeding programs and volunteer expenses. It also calculates that $66.8 billion is spent each year fighting depression, anxiety and other aspects of poor health that can accompany food insecurity, as well as $9.2 billion caused by hunger-related school dropouts and absenteeism at work.

The report concludes that boosting anti-hunger spending by an additional $10 billion to $12 billion a year is cost-effective and could even “virtually end hunger” in America.

“We ought to debate this,” said J. Larry Brown, founding director of the Center on Hunger and Poverty at Brandeis University and lead author of the report, “because if we’re right, we’re spending far more by letting hunger exist than it would cost to end it.”

The reported $90 billion cost burden does not include major public nutrition programs. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, federal spending on food-assistance programs totaled nearly $53 billion in fiscal 2006, a 4 percent increase from the previous year and the sixth year in a row that spending rose. The food-stamp program, which served nearly 27 million people in 2006, accounted for $33 billion in federal spending.

Robert Rector, senior research fellow for domestic policy at the Heritage Foundation, said the Sodexho report “detracts” rather than adds to understanding and that “there is no significant long-term hunger in this country.”

“The principal nutrition-related health problem facing poor Americans is obesity,” he said. “Families that are in chaos and turmoil will have temporary food shortages, along with hundreds of other problems. It does not mean that the food shortage is the principal cause of everything that’s wrong in the family.”

The food-stamp program is up for renewal this year and several politicians, including Oregon Gov. Theodore R. Kulongoski and Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, both Democrats, have highlighted the need for increased anti-hunger spending by attempting to live on $3-a-day food-stamp allotments. Critics have chided the politicians, noting that food stamps are intended to augment — not comprise — a family’s normal food budget.

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