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Hunger haunts the Big Apple

Problems of hunger and malnutrition in many parts of the developing world are common knowledge. But less well known is that in the United States itself, the world’s richest country, growing numbers are finding it difficult to put food on their table as prices rise at their sharpest for nearly 20 years.

Things are so serious that campaigner Jesse Jackson Jr has called on US Congress to legislate a temporary 20% increase in food stamps as people relying on them are falling short of the minimum needed. Significantly, many people in work rely on government food stamps to eke out their supplies. And things are set to get far worse, as floods in the corn growing states of Iowa and Illinois will send the price of corn even higher. It has tripled over the past two years, partly driven by the switch to biofuel production instead of food.

The Food Bank for New York City, which collects and distributes food to provide food for the hungry, has announced that around 3.1 million New Yorkers – over a third of the city’s population – had problems over the last year. That figure is up by 55% from 2003 levels.

More people than ever are relying on soup kitchens and “food pantries” where free food is distributed, to eke out their dwindling diets. A year-long survey revealed that in the middle age group (ages 36-64), nearly half of city residents had difficulty affording food in 2007. And worst hit in terms of a worsening of their circumstances are middle-income residents.

The number of residents relying on soup kitchens and food pantries rose by 24%, from one million to 1.3 million over the last three years. The New York Food Bank report found that one out of five households were unable to save to cushion any loss of household income and would not be able to afford food as a consequence of illness, unemployment or rising prices.

People like June Jacobs-Cuffee of Brooklyn, interviewed by the New York Times, who has to share her $120 a month in food stamps with her 19-year-old epileptic son, can only make do by “very careful budgeting”. New Yorkers are specially affected because food costs there are higher than most other parts of the US. Across the US, the cost of what the government considers a minimum nutritional diet has risen 7.2% in the last year alone. Some staples, such as eggs have gone up 20%.

With rapid and continuing rises on a global level of staples like rice, corn, wheat, eggs and many other foodstuffs, there is no end in sight to the problems of middle and low income people in the United States, as indeed elsewhere, including Britain. While the production and distribution of food remains in the hands of a small number of global corporations, profit margins and not the needs of ordinary people, will remain the priority.

Far from being insoluble, the world food crisis could actually be ended, certainly in the view of the United Nations, whose food agency met in Rome earlier this month. The figure it came up with for ending global hunger was just $30 billion. This compares with the $340 billion approved by US Congress for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2009 alone. Feeding hungry New Yorkers was the last thing on their minds as they voted through another year of war and destruction.

Corinna Lotz
AWTW secretary
23 June 2008

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