A national school lunch program is a bargain. But paying for it by cutting back on family food entitlements is a false economy. In cutting SNAP entitlements, the cost of feeding the hungry is shifted to food banks. Some of the funding for this comes from charitable contributions, though much of it comes from government sources. And it's an immensely wasteful way to feed the hungry. The long series of exchanges between food manufacturers, distributors, warehouses, and food pantries is a system that cost $14.5 billion in 2005. State entitlements are a much more cost-effective way of fighting hunger than soup-kitchens, and cutting SNAP will encourage inefficiency.
If we go the inefficient route, there'll be much more to pay, though. And this is where the notion of hunger being, above all, an individual a phenomenon needs to be dispensed with. It's true, of course, that it is on individual bodies that the trauma of hunger is written. The costs of disease related to hunger, like migraines, upper gastrointestinal tract, and even increased colds, comes to $4.6 billion. But hunger spawns immense and largely ignored mental health costs.
People living with hunger and food insecurity are five times more likely than average to harbor thoughts of suicide or engage in self-destructive behavior. Treat that behavior and factor the lost productivity due to anxiety, depression, and suicide related to hunger, and the bill came to $31.2 billion in 2005. If the food stamp program shrinks, these costs will rise. Even if children come home from school well-fed—which, I say again, absolutely needs to happen—they will not be sheltered from the horrors that hunger inflicts on those who care for them after the school bell rings.
So, what's hunger's damage today? It's not too hard to update the figures from 2005 to 2009. We can leave the level of charitable contributions at 2005 levels because food banks are finding themselves stretched to breaking point since philanthropic funding has remained inadequate because of the recession. Let's just, as the study's authors suggested I do as a quick-and-dirty calculation, simply apply inflation and the increased numbers of hungry to the 2005 figures. The cost of hunger in terms of absenteeism and lost productivity today: $14.5 billion. Illness: $105.1 billion. Added to the $14.4 billion charitable cost of hunger, the total is $134 billion in 2009.
To put this all into perspective, we know from the OMB that the cost of extending the Bush tax cuts will be $5 trillion over the next ten years. American children are being hurt by hunger. Their families are too. The idea of choosing between them would be morally repugnant if, indeed, it were a choice—but what becomes increasingly clear when you look both at the economics and sociology of hunger is that you can't save one group without saving the other. There is no Sophie's Choice here—there are simply degrees of harm that we allow to be inflicted on the poor.