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Bread For The World CEO On The State Of Hunger

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

On today's program, we're going to spend the full hour looking at one of the most urgent yet sometimes hidden crises this country is facing, and that is hunger. Poverty and food insecurity have always existed here in the U.S., but the pandemic as it has with almost everything, has made the problem worse for many across the country.

A poll of households in the four largest U.S. cities by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that in Houston, for example, 1 in 3 households have had serious problems affording food since the coronavirus outbreak began, and about 1 in 5 don't get enough food to eat every day.

So over the course of this hour, we're going to hear about the personal toll of hunger. We're going to talk about the systems that are meant to provide assistance and where they fall short. And we're going to talk with people working on finding solutions.

And to start, we wanted to understand the scale of the crisis, so we've called on Reverend Eugene Cho. He is the president and CEO of Bread for the World. That is a faith-based nonprofit working to enact policies addressing hunger globally.

Reverend Cho, thank you so much for joining us.

EUGENE CHO: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: So, Reverend Cho, let me start by saying that we know this is a global problem, and we're going to talk about these global issues. But for now, we want to focus on the U.S. Do we have any way of quantifying how much worse the crisis has gotten since the pandemic began?

CHO: Well, first of all, I'm so glad that you're covering this topic. The numbers are staggering, and I think this is the reason why it's hard for us to quantify. We're talking 54 million people in our cities, in our nation right now. That's about 1 in 6 Americans. So just walk around your neighborhood for a second, and out of every six person, one of these fellow Americans are experiencing hunger on some level and certainly is impacting children particularly very heavy.

MARTIN: And talk a little bit more about that. I was going to ask you about that. Are there specific groups of people that are especially vulnerable?

CHO: Well, we've heard it said now that the pandemic, as well as its secondary consequences, it's impacting children, especially Black and brown families - African American, Latino families. In fact, the recent Census Bureau data indicates that nearly 40% of Black and Latino families with children are struggling to put food on the table.

MARTIN: So what are some of the main drivers of food insecurity in the United States, and is it different from what's driving food insecurity elsewhere in the world? I just want to mention here that, according to the United Nations World Food Program, about 265 million people are facing life-threatening levels of food insecurity globally. So what are the drivers around the world? Is it the same or different in the United States?

CHO: It's a little different. You know, a few years ago, what led to some of the hunger crisis around the world was conflict, climate change. And then when you place on top of those things the reality of the global COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an extreme lockdown globally. So less people are dying because of COVID, but what they are being dramatically impacted by is the food systems. People just aren't able to access the food.

MARTIN: I think a lot of people are surprised that there is a food insecurity problem in the United States because I think people will say, well, gee, you know, what about these programs that I'm paying my taxes for?

CHO: Well, I think it's a fair question. So just to maybe take us back about a year, the census reported that in 2019 in the United States, we had the lowest poverty rate since the government started tracking it. So that's really tremendous progress. But I think what this pandemic has caused is exploited some of the fragility of our lives, of our society and of our safety net as well. And so as a result, organizations like Bread for the World, we're calling upon our lawmakers, upon Congress, upon the White House to amplify. We need to strengthen these safety net programs during this time because it makes sense. This is a unprecedented epidemic that we're facing. So the nation and our lawmakers, we need to act in a tremendously unprecedented, compassionate, empathetic way to help those who are suffering from the hunger crisis right now.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask if you have any personal experience with this?

CHO: You know, that's an interesting question. Both my parents were born in what is now called North Korea. My father is 85 years old, and he still shares these really incredulous stories of having to pull out grass from the ground to consume it to satisfy his hunger pangs. And it's nothing recent, but about 21, 22 years ago, my wife and I, we had ventured off to start our own church. And things didn't quite turn out as we had envisioned. And so I experienced unemployment for the first time in my adult life. And I can tell you right now, had it not been for the safety net of a program called the WIC program - Women, Infant and Children - had it not been for that program, for my wife and I then, our two kids, we would have been in tremendous trouble. This is the reality for 1 out of 6 neighbors. I want to just make it that much more personal. It's not just people over there. It's not just Americans in some faraway state, it's far away from us. It's our neighbors, 1 out of every 6.

MARTIN: That is the Reverend Eugene Cho. He is president and CEO of Bread for the World. That's a faith-based nonprofit working to enact policies addressing hunger in the United States and around the world. Reverend Cho, thank you so much for being with us.

CHO: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.