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BPR Interviews: Joel Berg

Joel Berg is the executive director of Hunger Free America, formerly known as the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. Before joining Hunger Free America, Berg worked under President Bill Clinton’s Administration in senior executive positions at the US Department of Agriculture.

How has the landscape for hunger and homelessness changed in recent years?

It depends on how you define recently. There was a huge jump in hunger during the recession, and it hasn’t gone down. And that is the most remarkable thing — this is the first so-called recovery in modern history in which there has not been a decrease in hunger, poverty, or homelessness. Before the recession, there were 36.1 million people [facing] food insecurity — that’s the wonkish federal term for “hungry” — and now the number is 48.1 million.  And so I fight back mightily against the notion that this is the new normal, that this is acceptable, and that this is just how it is. [48 million] is about the populations of California and Michigan combined. The structural inequalities in our economy and the cutbacks in the social service safety net are appalling.

Have you found that there are new methods, policies, or programs that have been at least somewhat successful or effective at reducing rates of hunger in New York City?

Our organization is nationwide now, and we recently changed our name to Hunger Free America to reflect the fact that we do work nationwide. The United States almost ended hunger entirely in the 1970s, and we did it by having a more inclusive economy, higher wages, and a more robust antipoverty safety net. So we, in fact, know exactly what works. The problem is that the country is doing the opposite, and it’s not because the programs don’t work — it’s that our politics are fundamentally broken and that we need immediate national leadership. We need a national fix to this problem, led by the president, Congress, and the national business community.

You mentioned that the challenges are mostly political in nature. How can there be political opposition to a seemingly nonpartisan issue such as ending hunger and homelessness?

We basically need to do three things. We need to mobilize the people most affected — there are 48 million Americans…so if we better organize low-income people to fight for their own futures, we will have a lot more success soon. Second, we need to convince people in the middle. We need to help the middle class know that the poor are not some “other” — and that there’s a very good chance statistically that at some point in their life they’re going to fall into poverty. A good portion of Americans fall into poverty at some time in their life. And three, we have to isolate, contradict, and disprove the opposition…Every time [the other side] says: “SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program]…people don’t work,” you have to point out that the vast majority of people on SNAP are children, senior citizens, people with disabilities, veterans, and working parents. Over 80 percent of adults receiving SNAP benefits were working the year before and the year after receiving SNAP. I do think there is some hope that even some conservative, fundamentalist Christians are coming around to understanding that both the New and the Old Testament have a significant amount of language regarding fighting hunger arguably far more language than on some of the social issues on which they seem upset. I do think there are glimmers of hope where we can find common ground with people on the other side.

How will the presidential election affect the landscape of hunger and homelessness in America?

This presidential election is a key determinant. We are a nonpartisan group. We do not pick sides in elections. But the claim that some people make [is]: “Oh, both parties are the same.” If you watch a Democratic presidential debate and a Republican presidential debate and make that claim, you’re just being preposterous. [At] no time in American history have the parties been more different. So for people who care about these issues, I hope they understand that this election is a watershed moment.

What is your assessment of what President Obama has done to improve rates of hunger and homelessness in the country?

I have a new book coming out this fall, [and] I have a whole chapter on why President Obama broke his promise [to end child hunger]. But his administration has done a lot of work administratively to increase participation in existing programs — that’s great. And his last budget has proposed some truly progressive things for hunger.

But I do fault him for compromising too readily with the Republicans, particularly when the Democrats still controlled the House and Senate and then still controlled the Senate. The bottom line is that he pledged to end child hunger by 2015, and by the end of 2015 there was at least as much child hunger, and possibly more, than the day he started. I want to acknowledge all of the forces arrayed against him — the big money against him, the racism against him. That being said, the record is the record. He pledged to end child hunger, and the problem is just as bad as when he started. So I would say that it’s a decidedly mixed record, although the point I make in my new book is that…it is wrong to blame the system or the politicians, when it is really all of our faults as citizens.

What can ordinary citizens do to help alleviate the problems of hunger and homelessness?
They should be informed voters. If they can, they should be active on campaigns. They should call their representatives in Congress regarding specific bills. Right now there’s a bill in the Senate that would fund school breakfast and school lunch, and there’s not a penny of new funding [for] that. In contrast, they found an extra $64 billion dollars for the latest undeclared war in the Middle East. The entire federal funding for summer meals for kids is about half a billion dollars. One year of fighting equals 128 years of summer meals for kids.