Growing Food Insecurity in the United States is Symptomatic of a Devastating Disregard for Basic Human Rights

The 2013 Farm Bill, which sets the course for U.S. agricultural and food policy, including the future of the country's food assistance programs, was voted on in the Senate yesterday and will be voted on in the House later this month. The version of the bill passed by the Senate includes alarming cuts to SNAP, which stands for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, and is commonly known as the “food stamps” program. The bill passed in the Senate includes the Vitter Amendment, which introduces a new categorical bar from SNAP, for life, of anyone who has ever been convicted of a list of certain crimes at any time in their life; the amendment also means lower SNAP benefits for their children and other family members.

As things stand, one in six people in the United States is experiencing food insecurity, which means that they cannot afford adequate food. Of the approximately 50 million individuals impacted by food insecurity, 17 million are children and 17 million have very low food security, which means they have to skip meals, reduce the size of their meals or even go without eating for an entire day. The United States’ current food assistance programs, which includes SNAP, already fails horribly to address the roots of the food crisis and provides only nominal relief to just over half of the people experiencing food insecurity within the country's borders. That means that while one in six people are experiencing hunger and do not have adequate access to safe and nutritious food, only one in eleven receive the bare minimal assistance made available by the U.S. government today.

As if the growing crisis in food insecurity were not bad enough, cuts to SNAP have become a central negotiating item in the recent congressional debates over the new Farm Bill. The difference between the House and Senate versions of the bill is not whether to make cuts to the program, but how much to cut. Both versions guarantee greater suffering for those in the United States already struggling to survive in the wake of the largest economic recession since the Great Depression.

This is some of the shocking evidence of the serious violation of a core human right in the United States, which has recently been captured in a new report issued by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University, entitled Nourishing Change: Fulfilling the Right to Food in the United States. This report sheds much-needed light on the growing – yes, growing and doing so rapidly! – food insecurity crisis in our country and calls for a human rights-based transformation of the U.S. food system. As the Center's report rightly states, the time could not be riper for a new approach to meeting the fundamental nutritional needs of people in the United States.

The right to adequate food has long been recognized around the world as fundamental to every person’s ability to live with dignity. It has been enshrined in a set of human rights treaties and declarations, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the wealthiest country in the world, with a surplus of food (much of which is thrown away), there is no justification for the kind of structural devastation that is wrought by manufacturing food insecurity for the largest subsection of the U.S. population in recent history. As noted in the Center's report, food insecurity comes with significant consequences for one’s health and educational outcomes, especially for children, which in turn has implications for generations of human development.

The human rights framework clearly delineates that, in adopting a human rights approach to food, the primary objective of the U.S. government should be to fulfill its obligations to meet all people’s basic needs, especially the most vulnerable populations (e.g. people experiencing food insecurity), and, from that basic premise, establish a budget and comprehensive system by which it may achieve this goal. The U.S. government is obligated to address the entire food system, from the production to consumption of food, and create accountability and transparency in the food system through enabling the democratic participation of all people. It could start by ensuring that the fundamental right to food is not so grotesquely violated in the world’s wealthiest nation.

To read the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU’s report, click here.

To learn more about the human right to food, click here.