Obama Family Has Opportunity to Lead Fight Against Hunger

Posted January 20, 2009 at 3:02pm

For the first time on Tuesday, we had a serious step taken to ensure continuity of government, at the most vulnerable point in the American political system: the inauguration. With a plan worked out between the outgoing Bush administration and the incoming Obama administration, Defense Secretary Robert Gates absented himself from the Capitol to ensure that one individual clearly in the line of succession would be away from Washington in the event of a devastating attack. There were other steps taken as well, to protect homeland security.

[IMGCAP(1)]I am delighted that the two White House teams understood the gravity of the situation, but of course action was made easier by the fact that a Cabinet secretary was being kept on from one administration to the next, something that may not happen in the future. But the two administrations gave the public a nice present and a good precedent.

While continuity is a passion of mine, my highlight of a stirring and electric inaugural week came Monday night, when I attended one of the 10 dinners held across the city to benefit the District’s hungry people. The dinners were the brainchild of Alice Waters, the remarkable chef at Berkeley’s legendary Chez Panisse, and she recruited 10 legendary chefs to cook memorable meals for 40 to 50 fortunate people, with the price of admission being a nice contribution to Martha’s Table or DC Central Kitchen.

My dinner, at Reed and Betsy Hundt’s house, was prepared by Rick Bayless, known as Barack and Michelle Obama’s favorite chef for his sublime Mexican food served at his restaurant Frontera in Chicago. Bayless did not disappoint through five wonderful courses.

I write this not to brag about my good fortune but to highlight the issue that brought Waters, Bayless and their peers to D.C. for the inauguration. All are passionate about food, but more than just how to cook it well. The chefs who were here are known for their commitment to using fresh ingredients from sustainable sources, and they want to educate people about the benefits of fresh ingredients grown or raised in the right way.

But they also care about hunger in America, which is becoming as big and important an issue as it was in my youth when a 1968 TV documentary electrified the nation and mobilized the political process. George McGovern became the champion of this issue in Washington, and he later joined with Bob Dole to make a potent one-two bipartisan punch. It made a huge difference, but not permanently. The issue did not go away, and many dedicated people, such as former Gary Hart aide Bill Shore, who founded Share Our Strength, have worked hard over many years on reducing hunger.

But in 2005, before our economic problems and financial meltdown, NPR reported that more than 38 million Americans were considered to be “food insecure” — having difficulty finding the money to put food on their tables. The numbers are clearly much higher now, and they will be growing. For organizations such as Martha’s Table, DC Central Kitchen, So Others Might Eat, Bread for the City, Capital Area Food Bank and Central Union Mission, the demands are growing — but as is the case for all nonprofits, the sources of income are shrinking.

The problem is not just people going hungry. For many, the struggle to find enough money for food, combined with the stress of having multiple jobs and other responsibilities, means that buying unhealthful foods, including a lot of prepared or processed meals that don’t require a lot of time for shopping or cooking, becomes the norm, and adds to the nation’s health problems and costs by exacerbating obesity and its ancillary burdens.

What to do? First, Congress needs to make this issue a priority. The first instinct of Congress when an issue like this emerges is to create a committee. That is not necessary. What should happen is mobilization of the Agriculture panels in both chambers, along with the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in the Senate, and the Energy and Commerce Committee in the House, to make hunger and nutrition focal points for policy, via hearings and legislative action.

The federal government should not supplant the vital role played by the nonprofits, but it needs to help out state and local governments to provide enough resources during these tough economic times to fill the urgent needs in many cities and rural areas. At the same time, we need additional attention paid to the school breakfast and lunch programs, including adopting and expanding nationally the edible schoolyard program pioneered by Waters, and finding other means to make sure that the meals provided in schools meet basic and salutary nutritional needs.

This is also a great opportunity for the new administration, which can play its own enduring role here, by deed and example. One way is to have an organic garden on the White House grounds, creating produce that can be used for meals there, and educating people about the advantages of fresh produce. A second is for the Obama family, as it fulfills the commitment to get engaged in the D.C. community, to make the issue of hunger and nutrition a focal point. Battling hunger does not have to be (and should not be) the only activity here. Wonderful programs to help educate and advance kids from high-risk areas in the city, such as the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation and Hoop Dreams, would also benefit hugely from involvement by the Obamas and others in the administration.

In 40 years here, I have never seen the excitement and electricity that this inaugural week has provided. Now comes the hard part, from getting the economy out of the ditch to fixing the health care system and ameliorating our energy and environmental problems, not to mention dealing with Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East. The agenda is full and overflowing. But that is no excuse to drop the ball on the need for adequate and nutritious food for all Americans.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.