Both the House and the Senate have approved versions of a farm bill that cuts the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. The expectation is that charities such as FOOD for Lane County will step in to fill the gap. To which Jon Stubenvoll, director of advocacy for the Oregon Food Bank, has this response: “We can’t do that — it simply won’t happen.”
The food bank would like Congress to know where food aid comes from. A typical family of four that qualifies for food assistance gets 252 meals a month from the SNAP program. Another 120 come from school meals or after-school child nutrition programs. Thirty-six meals come from emergency food banks.
The arithmetic behind Congress’ thinking doesn’t add up: Charities that provide one meal in 10 can’t make up for a 10 percent cut in a program that provides one meal in three. FOOD for Lane County estimates it would have to distribute an additional 1 million pounds of food a year to compensate for the proposed cuts to the SNAP program, a 14 percent increase. FOOD for Lane County and its supporters are already stretched to the limit.
Even at current funding levels, SNAP benefits often fall short. If the typical family of four gets 252 meals a month from SNAP, more than 100 per month must come from somewhere else. The average benefit is $129 per person, or $1.44 per meal, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that a low-cost, nutritionally adequate home-cooked meal costs $2.60 per adult. An Oregon Food Bank survey found that only 9 percent of recipients succeed in making their SNAP benefits last all month.
In the not-so-distant past, federal food assistance programs enjoyed strong bipartisan support, backed by a powerful coalition of agricultural, retail and social-service interests. The proposed cuts to the program show that the support is eroding. In the course of the recently concluded campaign former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called Barack Obama “the food stamp president,” and he didn’t mean it as a compliment. Gingrich expressed a spreading resentment, based on perceptions that too many people receive SNAP benefits and that not all of them are deserving.
But according to the state Department of Human Services, Oregon’s SNAP program is virtually fraud-free. A House resolution opposing cuts in food assistance notes that the SNAP program has achieved the highest level of payment accuracy in its history. The program has an inherent safeguard against abuse: SNAP benefits can’t be used for anything but food, ensuring that poor people can buy groceries after their other resources have been soaked up by rent, gas, utilities and other expenses.
Gingrich aimed his criticism at Obama because 49 million people in the United States receive food assistance, a record — including 810,000 in Oregon and 83,000 in Lane County. But the country doesn’t have a food stamp president, it has a food stamp economy. The need for SNAP benefits always goes up when the economy goes down. A drop in unemployment would reduce the number of beneficiaries, half of whom already receive benefits for 10 months or less.
In the meantime, spending on food assistance is one of the federal government’s most effective tools for economic stimulus. Food aid is spent, not banked or invested, and each dollar in aid generates $1.79 in economic activity. The SNAP program pumps nearly $20 million a year into Lane County’s economy.
The program’s efficiency and its economic effects, however, are secondary to its main purpose: preventing, or at least easing, hunger. It’s a condition that hits the most vulnerable first — five out of six households receiving SNAP benefits include children or members who are elderly or disabled. Congress must not turn its back on these people.