Will One Billion Feed One Billion?

Boy Eating Noodles

Recently the World Food Program (WFO at http://www.wfp.org) recognized two significant milestones in world affairs. 

One billion people around the world now face hunger or starvation every day! 

One billion people now go “online” every day, accessing information, communicating with family and friends, playing games, learning, working, watching videos, buying products and enjoying themselves as “digital” citizens of the world.

To mark these two milestones, the WFO launched the “Billion for a Billion” program, calling on the one billion people wealthy enough to be “digital citizens” to go online to end world hunger by donating as little as 25 cents per person.

The WFO estimates that it only needs $170 to end hunger for one person for a year (http://www.wfp.org/1billion). 

At face value, this program sounds like a brilliant idea that takes advantage of the connectivity of today’s world.  The contrast between the billion “who have” and the billion “who do not” may be a great marketing and publicity campaign for WFO.

Unfortunately, slogans do not feed people.  

Calls to action, when not backed by unrelenting leadership from public officials and well-meaning non-governmental organizations, are often forgotten shortly after they are issued.  Take Maryland for example. 

According to the most recent census, Maryland’s population now approaches six million.  Over 10% of the state’s residents - 651,370 people - are food insecure (http://feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/hunger-studies/map-the-meal-gap.aspx). 

 “Food insecurity” is public policy jargon for going hungry.  So what would it cost to end hunger in Maryland? 

In Maryland, the average cost per meal is $2.69 (http://feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/hunger-studies/map-the-meal-gap.aspx).  Just over $3,000 will feed one person three full meals per day for a year.  Put another way, to provide each of the persons suffering from hunger in Maryland with one full meal per day would require just over $700,000,000.  

Maryland’s economy was $283,000,000,000 in 2008.  So Maryland could provide one full meal per day for every hungry person by spending less than 0.25% of its annual state economy.  Three full meals would require less than 1%!

After winning re-election to a second term in 2010, Governor Martin O’Malley announced his campaign to end childhood hunger in Maryland by 2015.  He set this goal in partnership with Share Our Strength, a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting hunger (http://nokidhungrymd.org/).

Governor O’Malley and Share our Strength estimate that just over 207,000 children go hungry every day in Maryland.  Providing one full meal to each of these children each day for a full year would require roughly $215,000,000 (or 0.08% of the state GDP).  Ending childhood hunger in Maryland would require just under 0.25% of its GDP. 

Maryland currently receives funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.) to provide free lunches for an average of 193,000 students five days per week during the school year.  That figure drops to roughly 59,000 during the ten weeks of summer vacation (that is under 30% of the hungry children in the state).  

The federal government also provides Maryland with funds for free school breakfasts.  Nearly 160,000 children live in families that receive food stamps (under the SNAP program of U.S.D.A.).

So ending childhood hunger in Maryland should not be difficult.  Why should it take until 2015 to achieve this eminently reasonable and achievable goal? Why is it so difficult in Maryland, one of the wealthiest states in the nation? 

Ending childhood hunger is a great slogan.  Like everything else in society, it will only happen when enough citizens demand it from their public leaders.

Given the current dynamics at the federal level, where both Democratic and Republican leaders seem all too willing to cut back on funding for the Department of Agriculture programs and other elements of the social safety net as the politically easy way to cut the national deficit, the goal of ending hunger anywhere in America is in peril.