In the wealthiest country in the world, no one should be hungry

America’s food safety net is broken. In the richest country in the world, some 25 million households — including 12 million households with children under the age of 18 — reported that they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat, according to recent Census Bureau data. Low-income households, people of color, single mothers, people with disabilities, the elderly and LGBTQI+ communities tend to experience disproportionately high rates of hunger and food insecurity. It’s past time for lawmakers at all levels of government to address this crisis.

Later this month, the Biden administration will host a White House Conference on Hunger, Health, and Nutrition with the goal of eradicating hunger by 2030. The conference provides an opportunity to rethink our food system, applying lessons from the pandemic and other economic, health and climate-related disasters to overcome today’s challenges and create an equitable and sustainable food system.

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic downturn exacerbated the country’s already high rates of hunger and food insecurity. Fortunately, pandemic relief legislation — including the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan Act — mitigated the worst of those impacts by increasing support for federal nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). Direct economic stimulus payments, the expanded child tax credit (CTC), as well as the earned income tax credit also helped individuals and families bolster their incomes, reducing the overall rate of economic and food insecurity. By December 2021, the CTC alone had reduced monthly child poverty by almost 30 percent.

But even with these investments, too many Americans are still struggling to put food on the table. According to new data from the Household Pulse Survey, almost 9 million households receiving federal SNAP benefits reported that they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat. Meanwhile, 12 million households reported getting free groceries from food pantries, churches or other community supports during this time, attesting to a growing food need and a system that is unable to keep up with demand. 

There is no doubt that federal investments kept the worst of food insecurity at bay over the past few years. But many of these provisions offered only temporary relief. Much this expanded funding has now expired, leaving people to jump through convoluted administrative hoops to get the basic supports they need, even as they struggle to build economic stability.

As a country, we need to do better. People in need should not have rely on food pantries and emergency food assistance for sustenance. Lawmakers must take a comprehensive approach to eliminating hunger by building a strong safety net that meets the needs of all people through expanded federal food programs, including SNAP, WIC, universal school meals and more. Federal programs must go beyond food assistance to address the root causes of food insecurity — notably, our broken food production and distribution system as well as long-standing policy decisions that have benefited corporations and the wealthy over the general population. These programs must provide low-income individuals and families with the means and opportunities to build financial stability through increased wages, good jobs, high-quality child care, affordable housing, transportation and more.

Additionally, to build a food system that works for all in a long-term and sustainable manner, lawmakers must consider how ongoing global health and economic crises, supply chain disruptions, geopolitical conflicts, weather shifts, as well as the toll of climate change will continue to affect food production, availability and prices.

The pandemic has taught many an important lesson on how targeted federal investments are key to easing financial hardships and building a long-term, equitable economy that works for all. It’s high time that the richest country in the world took a serious look at why hunger persists within our borders and how investing in a food system that meets the needs of every community and person is good for long-term economic growth.

Arohi Pathak is the director of policy for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress.

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