S. 1172: Hunger Free Communities Act

Mr. President, President Eisenhower once stated, ``Every gun that is made, every warship that is launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in armaments is not spending its money alone: it is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.''

In as trying a time as we live in today, his statement cannot ring more true. We are in the middle of a war with no seeming end in sight. We have daily debates about the numbers in our budget. But President Eisenhower was right. We are not spending our money alone.

In a Nation as rich as ours, we should be able to arrange our priorities to meet the needs of our country, but the unfortunate reality is that in the United States today, children go hungry. Children count on school, not only for education but also for their meals. Seniors are forced to make a choice between life-saving medicines and groceries for their meals. Families are forced to make the difficult choice between paying for food and paying for utilities or their rent or mortgage or even their medicine or medical care. This is the reality of our America.

As Senators, we often hear from families that tell us the difficulty in making ends meet. More and more working families are turning to food banks, pantries and soup kitchens for emergency food assistance. When examining the actual costs of housing, food, utilities and other necessities, researchers have found that in most areas of the country, families need about 200 percent of the poverty level to achieve ``minimal economic self-sufficiency.'' Individuals and families are faced with a cost of living that continues to rise and an increasing gap between what low-wage workers earn and what is required to meet basic needs.

In my State of Illinois, over 158,000 Illinois households experienced hunger in 2005. If we include households that have had to struggle to put food on the table or have had to skip meals to make sure the food would last through the week--that's 440,000 households in Illinois living with food insecurity--9 percent of Illinois households. These are working families who need more to lead healthy, happy lives.

Fortunately, we have some programs in existence to offer hope. Since President Johnson started the war on poverty, we have documented that the Federal nutrition programs work to reduce hunger. When people are able to use Food Stamps, there are enough groceries to last through the week. When new moms are helped by WIC, they and their babies have enough milk and eggs and fruit. When senior citizens are near a Commodity Supplemental Food Program site, they can take home a box of food to fill the pantry AND buy their prescription drugs. Our school children can fill their stomachs and then focus on learning--because of the Federal school food program. In cases of emergency, like the tragic occurrences of hurricanes, our Federal nutrition assistance programs have been there to assist families in need. These Federal food programs work, but more can be done.

Last Congress, I introduced the Hunger Free Communities Act with Senators Lincoln, Smith and Lugar. The bill creates new grant programs that help communities make the most of the Federal nutrition programs and build on their successes.

First, the bill makes grant money available to local groups that are working to eliminate hunger in their communities . Each day, soup kitchens serve meals, and food pantries give groceries, and volunteers collect food, make sandwiches, and deliver food. Our bill creates an anti-hunger grant program--the first of its kind--that asks communities to access hunger and hunger relief at the local level. Grant money is available to help with that assessment or grant money can be used to help fill in the gaps that a local plan identifies.

Second, we create a funding stream that food banks and soup kitchens can use to keep up their buildings and trucks and kitchen equipment. The response of the food bank network to the crisis after hurricanes Katrina and Rita was remarkable. Tons of food was donated, transported and delivered by thousands of volunteers from all over the country. But within days, America's Second Harvest recognized the food banks needed freezers, forklifts, delivery trucks and repairs to warehouses and equipment. My bill creates the only Federal funding stream specifically for the capital needs of local hunger relief efforts. Helping these organizations is especially important for those organizations in underserved areas and areas where rates of food insecurity, hunger, poverty, or unemployment are higher than the national average.

Late last Congress, the Hunger Free Communities Act was passed by the Senate. I had hoped that there might be time for the House to act on it before the Session ended, but we ran out of time. This was, however, a small victory. It was a small step toward progress--a step that both Democrats and Republicans want to take for the health and well-being of our communities .

There are still too many parents in this country who skip meals because there is not enough money in the family food budget for them and their children to eat every night. There are still too many babies and toddlers in America who are not getting the nutrition their minds and bodies need to develop to their fullest potential. There are too many seniors, and children, who go to bed hungry. In the richest Nation in the history of the world, that is unacceptable.

Progress against hunger is possible, even with a war abroad and budget deficits at home. I am heartened by the 43 United States Senators who agreed with me and cosponsored the Hunger Free Communities Act last year. I am heartened by the support of the Illinois Coalition on huner, Bread for the World and America's Second Harvest. Congress will be reauthorizing many nutrition programs this year with the farm bill, and the Hunger Free Communities Act should be a part of that. I believe this bill can take a modest but meaningful step toward eliminating huger in this country. We tried to make that first step when the bill passed the Senate late last year. We can do it again and should.