Pretty soon, the holiday spending season will begin and some of us will offset the guilt of shopping by giving to food banks and soup kitchens. I won’t discourage you from making those donations because I run a food pantry and know they are critical help. However, there is something you can do now that could help many more folks long term: make a public comment on the proposed SNAP rule.
Earlier this year, the USDA announced a proposal that would dramatically curb access to SNAP benefits. Monday, September 23 is the last day to tell the federal government that this effort to tighten the belt on supplemental food resources is absurd.
The proposed rule eliminates a provision called Broad-Based Categorical Eligibility or Cat-El, which for twenty years has allowed states to use a higher income threshold and waive asset limits to expand the stretch of this social safety net. The USDA estimates that 3.1 million people would lose their benefits, and remove free school meals from half a million children whose access to breakfast and lunch is tied to the family’s SNAP benefits.
This latest attack on our working poor, elderly and disabled neighbors threatens fragile households. Since July, advocates for people who live in poverty, and representatives of hunger relief organizations have criticized the proposed rule, and with good reason. Forty states use Cat – El to protect their citizens with access to food dollars. SNAP gives low-income people extra money for groceries, allowing them to direct resources to pay their own bills. Remove those benefits, and suddenly, local and state governments will have many more unstable people to help. Public funds to help more people meet their basic needs just doesn’t exist, not at the local government level, and certainly not in private non-profit agencies, either.
Feeding America, the voice of food banks that act as warehouses for the emergency feeding system in our country, notes that SNAP provides nine meals for every single meal that its member food banks provide. Should this rule become law, there is no way that the food pantries, also known as food shelves, would be able to fill the extra need. The demand is already tremendous, as my work in emergency feeding proves.
I joke that I run a little grocery store by begging, which is more truth than humor. I work half time, gathering and redistributing 20,000 pounds a month of food and organizing volunteers to help move it. We have one worker who stocks and helps people shop 10 hours a week, but the pantry is open 30 hours a week. Most of our volunteers are retirees, and when one of them can’t pick up the food at the food bank, or help guests choose their food from our shelves, we really scramble.
The shoppers at our priceless store are everyday people scrambling to get done what they need to get done. Many people have SNAP benefits – we know because we ask, to make sure people are getting all the resources they can. Many people shop in their work uniforms, stopping off at the end of their shift. People give each other rides, or they get rides from neighbors, or they balance bags of groceries on baby strollers. Sometimes, kids are in the strollers. Sometimes, the stroller is just a cart. Other people tote their food home in luggage you see at airports.
When I first heard about the proposed rule, I thought I had better get a job far far away from the nonprofit world. We are already working too hard to try to feed people who can’t afford adequate food. If the Trump Administration guts the SNAP cushion, many more people are going to need help eating. Food insecurity affects 20% of the kids in my county, and nearly 12% of all households. All of the college campuses near me have food pantries, trying to serve struggling students. I truly cannot imagine how the secondary food system of food banks and food pantries could meet the need that this rule will create.
When I was a kid, TV ads flashed images of African children with distended bellies, and gave addresses of where to send checks. This summer, the attack on SNAP was denounced in the media, often because of the kids it would hurt. These cries activate sympathy, but we need to get beyond emotion and into logic about food, and SNAP. This is not a handout. This is insulation, and also, a way to help people participate in the retail food system. The charity food system cannot answer the appetites caused by minimum wage earnings. My job is a rare one — most pantries are entirely volunteer-run. Food banks are employers, sure, but they lean heavily on volunteers too.
These helping hands cannot secure a living wage or stack the deck fairly for the more than 3 million people who will be impacted by this rule. These Americans already face tough choices at bill time, playing roulette with child care expenses, transportation and medication costs, and rent. We need to get beyond imagining hungry kids, and consider the realities of the people who rely on SNAP. And if we cannot accept these realities because of a poverty-hating mindset that’s becoming acceptable, take a look upstream. Those SNAP dollars circulate heavily in the economy. In New York State, 18,000 grocers will be affected. Lawmakers don’t need their heartstrings yanked to read the wrong-mindedness of that move.
Let’s get out of pity and into practicality, and keep the bootstraps of SNAP attached. Please tell the USDA directly, or through the channel of a hunger relief organization in your area. Your voice can feed millions.