JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight: Even as families have gathered for the annual Thanksgiving feast this week, many continue to go without this holiday season.
One man trying to do something about hunger here and abroad got special recognition this week. We turn again to Ray Suarez for the story.
WOMAN: How are you today?
RAY SUAREZ: Even in Arlington, Virginia, one the wealthiest counties in one of America’s wealthiest metropolitan areas, more and more people rely on food banks to get enough to eat.
Nearly 17 million families in America, about 15 percent of all households, had trouble putting enough food on the table last year. And while the economy has shown some signs of recovery, the number of Americans going hungry this season is increasing.
As high unemployment persists, poverty is up and wages are flat. In Arlington, each day, people line up for a weekly ration at the Arlington Food Assistance Center. Demand has grown by 50 percent in the last two years. Volunteers drop off food items and serve more than 3,300 people a week, giving out some 26 tons of food every month.
I spoke to the Reverend David Beckmann, president of the faith-based advocacy organization Bread for the World, earlier this week. He’s the winner of the 2010 World Food Prize and author of the new book “Exodus From Hunger.”
RAY SUAREZ: What is the World Food Prize, and why did they recognize you and Bread for the World?
REV. DAVID BECKMANN, president, Bread for the World: Well, it’s — once a year, they give a prize for somebody who has helped to reduce hunger.
And, in my case, it’s a prize to Bread for the World. We have a network of people and churches across the country who push Congress to do some specific things to help reduce hunger in this country and around the world.
And the World Food Prize this — this year recognizes that Bread for the World has helped a lot of hungry people.
RAY SUAREZ: Has there been any change in who is hungry? As people have lost income, lost their jobs, has the population of the hungry changed?
DAVID BECKMANN: Well, the big increase in hunger is because of unemployment. So, much more than before, it’s young people with children, people who have lost their job, people who maybe can’t get a full-time job. They’re working a few hours, 20 hours a week, but they can’t feed their kids. That’s the big surge.
RAY SUAREZ: So, we’re seeing a lot of new people in that population, people who haven’t had this problem before and now are downwardly mobile?
DAVID BECKMANN: Right. There are lots of cases where people five years ago were contributing to food banks. And now they have to go into food pantries to — to complement what they can afford to buy at a grocery store for their children.
RAY SUAREZ: Are more Americans hungry today than a year ago at this time?
DAVID BECKMANN: Well, the news is bad, but it could be worse. It’s one in four kids in our country that lives in a household that sometimes runs out of food. It hasn’t gotten worse over the — over the past year. That is — that is what is striking.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, what has increased demand meant for the emergency system? Have places — like this food pantry that we’re in, how have they coped?
DAVID BECKMANN: There has been a big increase over the last couple of years in the food that is being provided to people in need through charitable channels. It is really heartening that most Americans have taken a hit, and, in fact, contributions to food banks, food charities have gone up. Churches and synagogues are doing more.
So, there’s been an increase in the help available, but not nearly as much of an increase as has been needed. The increase in need far outpasses what we have been able to do through charitable means.
That’s why it’s so important that we do things like provide tax credits for the working poor, so, if somebody’s got an $8-an-hour job, that they can get a little bit of extra income that they can use to get their car fixed or maybe enroll in a program as a dental hygienist.
Food banks can provide that kind of assistance. You know, they can provide a couple bags of groceries. And, in fact, people who are struggling with unemployment and the current economy need also to have the supports that we can provide them through our government.
You know, some people — some people are talking like, you know, the way to improve our economy is to cut programs for poor people. This is bunk. First, we need to help people who are struggling get a leg up. That’s good for the economy, for everybody.
And the programs that help poor people are tiny in relationship to the federal budget. So, we need to strengthen those programs, make them work as — just as effectively as we can for poor people, at this time of real crisis for many families.
RAY SUAREZ: Let’s look outside the U.S. to the rest of the world. How are we doing with hunger broadly speaking? And is it the same factors that are pushing people into hunger?
DAVID BECKMANN: What we have seen is the same surge in hunger over the last few years.
We had several decades of gradual decline in world hunger. So, this is a fixable problem. But then, with the economy being what it is, there are a couple million more people who are hungry today than three or four years ago.
And, in developing countries, we’re talking about the kind of hunger that outright kills children. Also, in developing countries, though, there are things that we can do. In fact, the U.S. government is leading a global effort to increase investments in poor farmers, in poor countries, so that they can produce more food themselves, for themselves and for their countries.
It is really a great initiative. And what I like best about it is that the U.S. isn’t doing it all ourselves. What we have done is to provide leadership to get everybody around the world to invest more in the productivity of poor farmers in poor countries. It’s the best way we could respond to this increase in world hunger.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, it’s long been said that the world already produces enough food to feed every man, woman and child on the planet.
Is that so? And, if it is, how come there are so many hungry people?
DAVID BECKMANN: It is so. And, in fact, I’m profoundly encouraged that, over the last two or three decades, the world’s made more progress against hunger, poverty and disease than at any time in human history.
I’m a preacher. You know, I see this as God moving in our time, and also asking us to get with the program. And, basically, what we need to finish the job, to overcome hunger and poverty, is more organized give-a-damn.
DAVID BECKMANN: We need — you know, we need to — we need to food-bank. We need to help people individually, but we also need to insist on changes in laws and structures that will provide opportunity to struggling people on a very large scale.
RAY SUAREZ: David Beckmann of Bread for the World, thanks for being with us.
DAVID BECKMANN: Thank you, Ray.