“Hunger is a political condition” that is “maddening” to solve because “we have the money, we have the resources, we have the infrastructure, we have the brain power, we have everything – but we don’t have the political will” to make changes necessary to end hunger in the US, McGovern said at the Consumer Federation of America’s National Food Policy Conference.
“I get frustrated in Congress because while I think this issue should not be a partisan issue, and for many years it wasn’t,” in the current political climate in the US “this issue has become very polarizing,” he said. He said this was in part because there are not enough consequences for legislators who vote against funding nutrition programs, and because stereotypes about the types of people who need food aid persist.
For example, he explained that when he votes against issues related to gun access, he knows that the National Rifle Association will activate their base to call his office, send him letters and visit him in his district to voice their disapproval and threaten his ability to win his next re-election.
Yet, when many legislators voted to cut Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program funding by $40 million, there was not organized response by stakeholders and supporters, and therefore, “there were no consequences,” McGovern said
“What has to change our priorities is that when people do things like that, they need to feel the pain and they need to understand that if they are going to vote to make hunger worse in this country, we are going to let your constituents know and we are going to hold them accountable at the ballot box,” McGovern said, adding, “because if there is one thing that all democrats and republicans have in common in Washington, it is we all want to get reelected.”
With this in mind, McGovern encouraged advocates and stakeholders to elevate the issues of hunger and food security now “because if not, you are going to see a Farm Bill that has cuts to SNAP and more hoops for people to jump through to put food on their table.”
Overcoming negative stereotypes about beneficiaries
McGovern hypothesized one reason that many Americans currently do not stand up for nutrition program funding is because many people believe the benefits program is rife with fraud and that those who benefit from nutrition programs are undeserving.
“When we have these debates in Congress, they are always about the fact that people who need these programs get characterized as somehow lazy or somehow undeserving or because they want to be poor,” McGovern said. But, he added, “I have never met anyone who wants to be poor. I have never met anyone who wants to be hungry.”
Furthermore, he said, “When we talk about SNAP, the majority of people on SNAP are children or senior citizens” and of the beneficiaries who are able to work, most do work.
“The debate tends to demonize the most vulnerable people in this country and it is frustrating because the perception in Washington is so different than the reality throughout the country,” he said.
For example, he said, the majority of able bodied people without dependents who are on SNAP are not lazy or intentionally abusing the system. Rather, “some have undiagnosed mental health issues and substance abuse issues, and we are now learning that a big chunk of these able bodied adults are veterans coming back from serving half way around the world who are having a difficult time getting back into the community.”
He added that cutting these groups off from nutritious food may save short term spending in SNAP but will result in higher long-term costs related to poor health and lost productivity down the line.
“Good nutritious food often results in good health and prevents us from getting diseases like diabetes, heart disease and obesity and high blood pressure,” he said.
Threats to school nutrition standards are ‘tragic’
McGovern also took direct aim at recent efforts by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and others to lower nutritional standards in schools – a move he said “would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic.”
He said the push to roll back requirements for more fruit, vegetables and whole grains is another example of the “disconnect between what is talked about in Washington and what goes on back home.”
One argument for backing off from the standards is that children are unwilling to eat the healthier food, resulting in wasted food, less participation in the program and more hunger.
But McGovern said the reasons for wasted food likely is not related to children not liking what is offered.
Rather, he said when he visited a school where he was told children wasted apples he found out that their lunch period was too short for them to eat the fruit in addition to their main entrée. In another case, young children did not eat their apples because they were in the process of losing their baby teeth and biting into a whole apple was painful.
In these cases, simply adding a few more minutes to lunch or offering children pre-cut apples could reduce food waste and increase consumption of nutritious food, he said.
Simple commonsense changes like these, rather than drastic funding cuts, will more effectively address hunger in the US, he added, reiterating that “we can end hunger in our lifetime here and around the world, but we just need the political will.”