Federally Funding Hunger

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has recognized a right to food and a state obligation to increase access to food. However, the U.S. Government has not ratified that treaty, thus, the U.S. government cannot be held accountable for violating the ICESCR. In an effort to create a measure of accountability and to create a legal obligation to uphold the universal right to food, the U.S. should ratify the ICESCR and the United States should take more affirmative steps to ensure that hunger is eradicated.

One-sixth of all humans go hungry every day. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, hunger reached a historic high in 2009 with an estimated 1.02 billion people going hungry every day.
One-sixth of all humans go hungry every day.1 According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, hunger reached a historic high in 2009 with an estimated 1.02 billion people going hungry every day.2 The right to food is a human right defined by the Special Rapporteur3 as “hav[ing] regular, permanent and unrestricted access. . . [to] food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensures a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear.”4

The right to food is recognized in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR),5 which has no effect in the United States because it has not been ratified. Thus, the U.S. Government cannot be held accountable for violating Article 11 of the ICESCR, “to improve methods of production, conservation and distribution of food. . . in such a way as to achieve the most efficient development and utilization of natural resources.” 6 In an effort to create a measure of accountability and to create a legal obligation to uphold the universal right to food, the U.S. should ratify the ICESCR. In addition, the United States should take more affirmative steps to ensure that hunger is eradicated.

The United States Federal Government can look to the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights for guidance on how to eliminate hunger. The Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights has recognized three state obligations: the obligation to respect, protect and to fulfill.7 Governments should abstain from measures that would arbitrarily deprive people of their right to food, enforce appropriate laws, and take pro-active action intended to enhance people’s access to food. Governments must not take actions that result in increased levels of hunger, food insecurity, and malnutrition. Identifying vulnerable, disadvantaged, and marginalized groups and taking action towards removing those vulnerability factors is a paramount step toward the realization of the right to food.

The first step that the U.S. Government should take is addressing the needs of local communities within its own borders. Limitations on federal aid should be relaxed in order to meet the needs of the United States’ must vulnerable citizens. San Francisco is a good example of a community that could benefit from more federal food aid. This year San Francisco lost out on $592,000 in federal money because the city did not qualify under new standards imposed by the Emergency Food and Shelter Program.8 To qualify, a city or county must have at least a 14.4% poverty rate and an 11.5% unemployment rate; San Francisco has 11.3% and 9% rates respectively. This means that programs like the San Francisco Food Bank are losing $161,000 in funding, equivalent to a total of 483,000 meals.

In a recent San Francisco Chronicle article, Paul Ash, Executive Director of the San Francisco Food Bank, pointed out how the high cost of living in San Francisco was not taken into consideration with regards to the requirements for federal funding.9 He discussed how the loss of funding greatly hurt the Food Bank. He also stated that San Francisco was penalized for being both a city and county where counties like San Mateo received full funding even though San Mateo has lower poverty and unemployment rates. The Food Bank has seen an increase in the number of people asking for assistance but it has no means of securing increased funding given the current economic state. Requirements for federal assistance programs should be construed most broadly to maximize aid for places like San Francisco with a high cost of living and a large number of people who live on the brink of poverty.

While the right to food is not an express right laid out in the Constitution, it is an underlying right that affects express rights such as the right to vote and the right to participate in the democratic system. For example, if a person consistently goes hungry, that person cannot vote and cannot participate fully in our democratic society. A democratic society cannot function if its citizens are physically limited so both government and society’s interests are served by ensuring that citizens do not go hungry. While ending world hunger is a daunting task that can only be accomplished through massive worldwide cooperation, the United States can take firm steps toward this lofty goal by both ratifying important international treaties such as the ICESCR and by relaxing its standards for providing federal aid to local communities. The right to food should be recognized as an underlying right and the U.S. government must take greater steps to ensure that hunger is eradicated.


1 1.02 Billion People Hungry, http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/20690/icode/ (last visited Oct. 26, 2011).
2 1.02 Billion People Hungry, http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/20690/icode/ (last visited Oct. 26, 2011).
3 The Special Rapporteur is the title of an individual who works on behalf of various regional and international organizations. The Special Rapporteur conducts fact-finding missions to countries to investigate, monitor, and recommend solutions to specific human rights problems.
4 Right to Food, http://www.righttofood.org/new/html/WhatRighttofood.html (last visited Oct. 26, 2011).
5 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/cescr.htm (last visited Oct. 26, 2011).
6 Id.
7 Right to Food, http://www.righttofood.org/new/html/WhatRighttofood.html (last visited Oct. 26, 2011).
8 Heather Knight, S.F. Food Banks Struggle With Major Funding Cuts, San Francisco Chronicle, Aug. 11, 2011, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/08/20/MNTO1KO7PR.DTL.
9 Id.