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Going Hungry in America

What Happened to the Food Surplus?

The third in a five-part special report

Will the new farm bill help?

The Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008—the farm bill passed on June 19—may help get commodities flowing to food banks again soon. Among other things, it increases funding for the Emergency Food Assistance Program from $140 million in 2008 to $250 million in 2009. And thanks to a provision that releases $50 million in emergency funding even before the law goes into effect Oct. 1, food banks around the country are starting to see increasing variety in the surplus commodities they receive.

The Vermont Foodbank, for example, has recently been getting shipments of frozen chicken. “That’s something we haven’t seen in a long time, and it means a lot,” O’Brien says.

The new farm bill doesn’t go as far as many advocates for the hungry would like. On the plus side, it reauthorizes the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), which provides monthly food boxes to millions of needy people, the majority of them older Americans. That’s especially welcome news because the program had been targeted for elimination by the Bush administration for three consecutive years.

But while the money allocated to the Emergency Food Assistance Program is guaranteed over the life of the bill, the CSFP budget will continue to come up for review every year. Supporters of the program hope that it will eventually be given a permanent budget and the resources it needs to meet the growing needs of low-income older Americans.

But that doesn’t change the underlying forces that are transforming the global food economy. With growing demand from emerging economies, analysts predict, pressure on supply will last well into the future, putting upward pressure on prices. Fuel and transportation costs are likely to remain high, and the nation’s economic woes portend a continuing weak dollar, at least in the near term.

“We’re really looking at a fundamentally changed food environment,” O’Brien says.

His counterparts at other food banks agree. As David Goodman of the Redwood Empire Food Bank in , puts it: “We’ve got a world of committed volunteers. We’ve got funding. The real issue is going to be getting food.”

As food banks, meal programs and other food assistance organizations look to the future, experts say, they will have to look for new and innovative ways to keep millions of Americans from going hungry. 

Peter Jaret is a freelance writer in Petaluma, Calif.

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