An alarming report was issued last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture: More than 49 million Americans, including nearly 17 million children, are going hungry. This represents a whopping increase of 36 percent over last year's report. What is even more alarming is that the figures in the current report represent a three-year average, from 2006 through 2008, when the economic downturn was just beginning. The current picture — more than a year into the recession, with unemployment topping 10 percent nationally — is undoubtedly even more disturbing than those statistics indicate.

Which does not bode well for Texas, and in particular, for Houston. This most recent of USDA's annual reports on hunger shows Texas ranking second in the nation in numbers of food insecure families, with 16.3 percent of the state's households struggling to afford food. In the Houston area, with its large low-income population, hunger has been a constant, significant concern for many years.

Granted, it's been a terrible year for many Americans struggling to make ends meet. But Texas could, and should, be serving its disadvantaged and hungry better. And the best, most effective way to do so, in the short term, is through the state's food stamp program, administered by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

But, short on staff and lacking in resources, HHSC is unable to handle eligibility and participation concerns in a timely and accurate fashion. In August, according to data from the Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP) in Austin, fewer than two-thirds of food stamp applications were processed on time (within 30 days of receipt) and the rate of improper denials — up from 2.8 percent in 2004 to 21.4 percent over the last five years — makes Texas the most error-prone state in the nation.

That's not only a grave disservice to Texans in need, it's a loss to the state's economy in general. Food stamps are 100 percent federally funded (states share only administrative costs) and serve to stimulate local economies — a particular benefit in down times. The state could also be liable for millions of dollars in federal sanctions because of HHSC errors.

In Houston, said Brian Greene, President and CEO of the Houston Food Bank, only about 50 percent of those eligible apply for food stamps. "Food stamps is our tragedy, particularly in the Houston area," Greene told the Chronicle. "Our pantries are the bottom of the safety net. We're not equipped to take care of this kind of need. That's a bigger gap than we can fill."

But it shouldn't be too big a gap for the state of Texas. It could fix its "broken system," said Celia Hagert, a senior policy analyst at CPPP, by adding staff and technical resources to HHSC and streamlining its rules and processes to make it easier to enroll.

Texans should demand no less. We are faced with an enormous problem with lasting consequences for the whole of our society, not only those individuals in need of assistance.

Our state is poorer, both financially and morally, if we neglect them and their families.

URL: http://www.chron.com/news/opinion/

—Houston Chronicle