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Every child must have the guarantee of food

I strongly believe that America’s ingenuity and sense of fairness should be applied to the effort of eliminating childhood hunger in this country. The Department of Agriculture is deeply involved in this effort as we work toward a national approach that promotes economic opportunity.

Last year 17 million households, or 14.6 percent of us, had difficulty putting enough food on the table at some point, according to a recent USDA report. This is an 11.1 percent increase from 2007, and the highest level observed since food security surveys were initiated in 1995.

Equally troubling, one-third of food-insecure households had what is termed low food security — 5.7 percent of all U.S. households, up from 4.1 percent in 2007. And, while children in U.S. households are usually protected from the worst results of food insecurity, last year 1.3 percent of households with children — about a half million — had very low food security, up from 0.8 percent the previous year.

The fundamental cause of food insecurity and hunger in the United States is poverty, defined by a lack of adequate resources to address basic needs such as food, shelter and health care.

While USDA’s nutrition safety net improves food access to those with critical needs, addressing the root of hunger requires a broad strategy.

The Obama administration has taken aggressive action on these fronts through an expansion of critical services for Americans most in need.

For one, the historic investments of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act increases nutrition assistance benefits for the 36.5 million people, half of whom are children, who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly the food stamp program, each month.

ARRA allocates an additional $20 billion for SNAP, increasing much needed benefits to recipients and helping states administer the program more efficiently. A four-person household, for example, now receives an average of $80 more for groceries, while states can expand benefits to more jobless adults beyond the usual three-month time limit.

We have another extraordinary opportunity to improve the health and nutrition of our children when Congress debates the coming Child Nutrition Reauthorization. The National School Lunch Program, for one, serves 31 million children a healthy meal each school day, and in some cases is a needy child’s primary meal. Through direct certification, children participating in SNAP are automatically eligible for the school lunch program.

And the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children ensures mothers and their children have access to nutritious options as well. Nearly half of all children born in this country participate in this program. Through the reauthorization, Congress can make it easier for families and administrators to bring eligible children into the program and eliminate gap periods when children struggle to find the nutrition assistance they need — at breakfast, during summer and in after-school settings.

President Obama and I are dedicated to improving child nutrition program access, to enhance the nutritional quality of school meals, and to reduce the growing epidemic of childhood obesity. The president’s budget recognizes the opportunity presented by reauthorization and his priorities underscore his commitment to people who are hungry and nutritionally at risk. Through concerted efforts and partnerships at all levels, we can pass a groundbreaking reauthorization bill to meet these goals and strengthen America’s safety net against hunger.

The administration has put in place unprecedented measures and legislation to combat hunger and poverty in America and to assist food-insecure households. But hunger will never be eliminated unless we unite in this fight. The recent USDA report on food security is another wake-up call for all of us.