Declare war on hunger ... again

Hunger still haunts our nation, even in the face of the obesity epidemic

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Forty years ago, the CBS documentary "Hunger in America" exposed the magnitude of hunger across this nation. For the first time, Americans got an up-close look at the true faces of hunger -- pregnant women who were malnourished, infants dying of starvation and starving tenant farmers living just miles from the nation's Capitol. Their stories, their faces, helped to ignite a national war on hunger.

Bob Casey represents Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate ( George McGovern is a former U.S. senator from South Dakota.

President Nixon convened a White Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health. The United States Senate established the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. This month, we recognize the 40th anniversary of the creation of that committee.

Over the next decade, members of this unique Senate committee developed a bipartisan response to hunger and laid the foundation of our current food assistance programs. Among their chief successes were reforming the Food Stamp Program; expanding the National School Lunch Program; making the School Breakfast Program permanent; and establishing the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kansas, played a critical role in the success of these initiatives.

Forty years later, these programs have succeeding in eliminating the most serious, chronic malnutrition in the United States. Today, nearly 28 million Americans receive food stamps, more than 17.5 million low-income children receive free or reduced-price school meals, and more than 8 million women and children receive WIC benefits.

But the war on hunger requires constant vigilance and we must recognize the unmet needs that still exist. Hunger continues to be a serious problem plaguing more than 35.5 million Americans.

Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of hunger because even mild malnutrition can have adverse effects on health, development, behavior, self-esteem and school attendance and performance.

In the coming year, Congress will have the opportunity to combat childhood hunger with the reauthorization of the National School Lunch Act. This legislation, which is set to expire on Sept. 30, 2009, authorizes all federal child nutrition programs.

One of the most important reforms is to expand the School Breakfast Program. While 30 million children a day participate in the lunch program, only 10 million children receive a school breakfast. We must find innovative ways to reach more of these children. There is a direct link between school breakfast and academic achievement. If the United States is going to compete effectively in a new world economy, we must educate our children and to do that we must provide the best possible nutrition at school.

We must also recognize that many low-income working parents with children are struggling to afford even the low fees charged for reduced-price school meals. According to the School Nutrition Association, approximately 1 million children in this country are eligible for a reduced-price meal yet they do not participate in the program due to the cost barrier. We must ensure these children too receive proper nutritional assistance at school and don't fall through the cracks.

Providing adequate nutrition to children during the school year is only part of the answer. Congress also needs to implement changes to ensure that the millions of children who rely on school meals are not left behind during the summer. Currently, only two in 10 children who benefit from school meals also receive meals during the summer months. We must find ways to make programs like the Summer Food Service Program more accessible to children in urban and rural areas. Hunger doesn't take a vacation, and Congress owes it to these children to ensure food assistance programs don't either.

Finally, Congress must continue to improve the quality of all nutrition assistance programs. One of the great ironies of the current challenge is to recognize that hunger and obesity can exist at the same time. While we must recognize the huge federal deficit, we must refuse to let funding challenges serve as an impediment to these critical changes. There is not a more important domestic social objective than to provide adequate nutrition to our most important resource, our children.

We therefore call on a new generation of leaders to pick up the mantle on behalf of the more than 35.5 million faces of American hunger. It's time to join together to reignite the war on hunger.


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