The season for empty plates

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Katie Holmes/Staff

 As grocery stores begin stocking their shelves with turkey paraphernalia, menorahs and Christmas lights, America’s poor await a grim gift from the federal government: brutal cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.

In just days, the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s modest 5.5 percent boost to SNAP will end. After Nov. 1, a family of four can expect their benefits to be cut by $36 a month. If that doesn’t seem like much, try scraping by on $5 a day for food, which is the average amount given to SNAP recipients.

To make matters worse, the U.S. House of Representatives has proposed cutting $39 billion from SNAP over the next 10 years, slashing benefits and booting 6 million people off the program entirely.

Politicians and pundits love telling us that tough budgets mean tough choices. But why do these tough choices always seem to land on the backs of children and the poor? Through our work in communities, we know the hungry are already making tough choices. A senior chooses to make a can of soup stretch for three days so she can afford a pair of eyeglasses. A mother chooses to tell her children “I’m just not hungry tonight” so they will eat.

The cuts on Friday mean the choices will only get tougher for vulnerable Americans. If enacted, the House of Representatives’ plan would spell disaster for the hungry.

And who are these hungry families? Four out of five include someone earning a low wage. Three out of four include a child, an elderly person or a disabled person. These are the families that will bear the brunt of congressional cruelty.

At the same time, food pantries and soup kitchens nationwide are reporting longer lines now than at the depth of the Great Recession. Oakland’s Alameda County Community Food Bank reports that its network of pantries and kitchens is woefully overstretched and understaffed. More than 60 percent of emergency food providers in our neighborhoods have zero paid staff members. More than half don’t have enough money or food to meet the need now, before Congress cuts SNAP. Last year, donations to their holiday food drive lasted only until March. Charity is wonderful, but it is no substitute for good and humane public policy.

SNAP needs to be strengthened and innovated for, not gutted. Not only does the program feed the hungry, but it also stimulates local economic activity. Economists estimate every dollar spent on SNAP generates $1.79 in the community. These benefits are not realized when the program is cut or enrollment lags, as is the case in California.

Along with having the highest poverty rate in the country, California has the sad distinction of ranking dead last among states for enrolling eligible families in SNAP. This hurts our families and our communities. In Alameda County alone, California Food Policy Advocates estimated an annual loss of more than $180 million in benefits for residents.

State lawmakers must act to ensure that all Californians have a genuine opportunity to receive the food assistance for which they are eligible. That means streamlining the enrollment process and harnessing technology to link SNAP enrollment to participation in other assistance programs, such MediCal.

Congress and the president must reject cuts to SNAP and dedicate resources to improve the program. Congress should invest in promising local initiatives, such as summer benefit increases to families with children, when hungry kids no longer get school meals, or “double-up” programs, which allow SNAP dollars to go twice as far when spent on fresh fruits or vegetables.

Additionally, retailers and the USDA must release more information about where and how SNAP funds are spent, which would give researchers and advocates the tools they need to confront the relationship between hunger and obesity. A limited number of municipalities should be given the latitude to pilot programs that limit SNAP spending on soda so we can better understand how such changes impact health and enrollment rates.

Rather than booting hungry people off SNAP, we should be working to ensure those who are eligible for assistance can get it. Children who aren’t hungry perform better in school, get sick less often and are at lower risk for unhealthy weight. SNAP makes that possible. SNAP means our neighbors don’t feel the pain of an empty stomach.

Cuts, whether they’re $36 a month for a family in poverty or $39 billion for our entire nation, multiply that pain.

We can make a better choice — one that multiplies immediately for our neighbors, our economy and our future.

The Farm Bill conference committee will convene Wednesday to try to present a final bill to President Obama. We hope you’ll join us in speaking up for our neighbors, our community and ourselves: No cuts to SNAP!

Miranda Everitt is a graduate student at Goldman School of Public Policy. Nora Gilbert is a graduate student in the School of Public Health and the College of Environmental Design. William L. Haar is a graduate student in the School of Public Health and the School of Social Welfare.