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Broader Strategy Urged To Combat Hunger In U.S.

Just one day after a federal report revealed that 1 in 7 U.S. families struggled to get enough to eat last year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urged lawmakers to reauthorize school nutrition programs that help feed the nation's schoolchildren.

Appearing before the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee on Tuesday, Vilsack said the child nutrition programs provide an opportunity to fight child hunger. A USDA report released Monday said 49 million people experienced what the government calls "food insecurity" in 2008.

"Yesterday, the department released a report showing that in over 500,000 families with children in 2008, one or more children simply do not get enough to eat. They had to cut the size of their meals, skip meals or even go whole days without food at some time during the year," Vilsack said. "This is simply unacceptable in a nation as wealthy and developed as the United States."

In the 2010 budget, President Obama has proposed an additional $10 billion over 10 years for programs to provide meals and improve child nutrition.

The National School Lunch Program serves 31 million children in 100,000 participating schools across the country; the School Breakfast Program serves about 11 million children in 88,000 schools.

"For many children in our programs, school lunch and breakfast represents the only healthy food that they eat all day," Vilsack said. He also encouraged lawmakers to expand the programs and work to ensure that children have food during "gap periods" when school isn't in session.

On Monday, Vilsack said a broader strategy is needed to eliminate hunger, and he lauded the Obama administration's efforts to address the reasons that many Americans don't have enough food.

"The fundamental cause of food insecurity and hunger in the United States is poverty — marked by a lack of adequate resources to address basic needs, such as food, shelter and health care," he said in a statement on the USDA Web site. "The Obama administration has taken aggressive action on these fronts through the expansion of critical services for Americans most in need."

The USDA's annual report on food security painted a bleak picture of food availability. According to the report, 17 million U.S. households didn't always have access to food last year — up from 13 million households in 2007. The figure was the highest level since the USDA began tallying the figures in 1995.

Many of the families relied on federal food and nutrition assistance programs, community food pantries and soup kitchens, the report said. Family members often skipped meals, and many adults did without food to provide for children in the family.

As bad as the USDA report is, Shamia Holloway of the Capital Area Food Bank said it doesn't reflect what's going on in communities now.

"Those figures are for 2008, but we expect to see even more families in need, more people suffering" this year, Holloway said. Calls to the food bank's Hunger Lifeline, an emergency food referral program, have increased 91 percent this year, she said.

Holloway said the worsening situation is partly due to the poor economy and rising national unemployment — which hit 10.2 percent in October.

"The economy has exacerbated the situation of the working poor, and it's affecting middle-class people now" because of unemployment, said Holloway. "The economy has significantly weakened, so there are more families struggling to get access to enough food, and nutritious food."

The Washington, D.C.-based food bank gives groceries to 700 agencies, churches, food pantries and other community groups to distribute to those in need. But the increased demand means supplies are being quickly depleted, and food distribution agencies have less to give.

Holloway said area food distribution agencies have reported increased requests for aid, ranging from 30 percent to 100 percent. She added that more than 633,000 people are at risk of hunger in the Washington area.

Vilsack said the elderly are especially vulnerable.

"We see seniors who have to decide, 'Am I going to buy my medicine this month, or am I going to eat this month,' " Vilsack said.

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