Williams: 'Tis the season to be hungry

Amanda McGovern, 15, from Centereach High School, and

Amanda McGovern, 15, from Centereach High School, and Daniel Ortiz, left rear 14, from Centereach High School, and Jaz Sarrier, right rear, from Centereach High School, load donated supplies into a school bus in Selden, NY. (Nov. 30, 2013) (Credit: Ed Betz)

It is a strange and ironic truth that in the world's richest democracy, many Americans are going to work in the morning, but they and their families are going to bed hungry at night.

As Christmas fast approaches, and the warming memories of Thanksgiving dinner give way to yet another work week, it is a humbling reminder - and a necessary one - that not all of us have much to be thankful for this holiday season.

According to research compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 14.9 percent of Americans are food-insecure. This accounts for 50 million Americans - around one in six - living in a household that is at risk of hunger. And of those, 17 million are children.


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And Congress just made it worse.

On Nov. 1, food-stamp benefits shrunk by an average 5 percent for recipients, when the boost in benefits from President Barack Obama's 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act ended. House Republicans have aggressively campaigned against extending these benefits, despite the fact that many of their own constituents - who are largely white and mostly Southern - depend on food stamps to support themselves and their families.

They're cutting benefits at a time that the number of people in need is increasing exponentially: A 2011 USDA report found that 5.5 percent of Americans, or nearly 17 million, suffered "very low food security," which meant they had to skip meals or not eat for a day. That reflected a rise of 800,000 over the prior year.

In a Gallup poll conducted in August, 20 percent of U.S. adults said that they didn't have enough money to buy the food their family needed at some point in the past year - worse than Britain, Germany and China.

And food insecurity isn't color-blind. In 2012, one in three African-American children lived in food-insecure households, compared to one in six white children. And of the 10 counties with the highest food insecurity rates in the nation, all were at least 65 percent African-American and - intriguingly - all in "red" Republican states.

But the most curious finding of all is this: Five of the 96 majority African-American counties with the highest rates of food insecurity also fell into the top 10 percent of counties with the highest food cost index, the average cost per meal being $3.07, as compared with the national average of $2.67.

What does that mean? The cost of food is highest for the poorest people in America.

And that's not the only culprit in the hunger games. The cost of food for everyone is rising - a fact that U.S. politicians seem to willfully ignore, while praising a relatively low inflation rate.

Herein lies the problem: The "core inflation rate" of 2 percent, measured by the Consumer Price Index, is a misleading figure, because it is reported excluding measures like food, gas and oil prices.

You've seen the price of chicken inching higher, right? That's because the poultry CPI increased by 5.1 percent since this time last year. And fresh vegetable prices experienced an even steeper climb, up 6.5 percent since October of 2012.

Another problem is that the food supply took a hit the past two years as severe droughts ravaged the American heartland. And as weather patterns changed, the Mississippi River experienced unstable rises and falls, leading to a reduction of cross-river traffic and affecting the transport of food.

In addition, fuel prices remained high - not because of political unrest in the Middle East, but rather, due to the unbridled practice of speculative (and lucrative) commodity trading on Wall Street.

As oil and gas prices increase, so does the cost of transporting food. And the U.S. government's subsidy of corn production for use in biofuels only serves to exacerbate the situation; it reduces the corn supply while having the unintended effect of raising prices.

The government passed the Commodity Exchange Act in 1936, at the height of the Great Depression, with the aim of limiting fuel and food speculation, and to protect both consumers and farmers from artificial manipulation of prices by bankers and investors. But, as Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi writes, "In 1991, the CFTC [Commodity Futures Trading Commission] issued Goldman Sachs an exemption, which was then allowed to be used by other banks, to override these limits. An explosion in commodities prices ensued, and we are still paying the price today, with gas prices above $3/gallon, despite no change in oil on the market from 2007."

And this is the backdrop to distracting political debates and the Republicans' war on the poor: Failure to support Obama's American Jobs Act; the incessant fight to cut funding for food stamps, unemployment benefits and Medicaid; the stagnation of immigration reform, which could increase jobs; and the failure to support an increase in the minimum wage all amount to food quite literally (and figuratively) being taken from the mouths of babes.

All this, while the GOP remains committed to blocking full implementation of Dodd-Frank financial reforms and pushing for a return to the days of deregulation. So Wall Street bankers get rich by artificially inflating oil and gas prices, as American children go hungry.

Fewer holidays become happy, and there is less and less reason to be thankful.

'Tis the season to be food-insecure.

Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington, Arise America and national syndicated radio.

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