We’ll shell out more than three trillion dollars for a war in Iraq and grant an additional $100 billion plus in additional corporate tax cuts next year, but we won’t ensure that American children have enough to eat? It’s not, unfortunately, a down-the-rabbit-hole scenario — this week it’s basic politics in Washington, D.C.
In mid-August, Democrats in Congress gritted their teeth and voted for a $26 billion bill that helped pay states’ costs for Medicaid and teachers’ salaries — paid for by cutting future food stamp benefits (now called the Supplemental Nutriton Assistance Program, or SNAP). Barely a month later, legislators are in another “paying Paul by robbing Peter” bind, fighting over whether to pass a Child Nutrition Bill that would provide small increases to school lunch budgets by slashing future SNAP funding even more. Just a few hours ago, the bill stalled in the House, preserving SNAP benefits as they are for the time being. Unfortunately, this also means the increases to school lunch funding, and the guidelines the program would have put in place for restricting junk food in cafeterias, providing training and recipes to school chefs, and introducing more farm-to-school programs have also been stopped in their tracks.
The Child Nutrition Bill expires every five years, and is due to run out today — Congress passed a stop-gap measure to fund the program as it is until they reconvene for their lame-duck session. During their recess, Congress must try to rework the bill so it does not cut future SNAP increases (which would almost certainly guarantee they will have no bipartisan support), or try to rally around it despite the cuts.
On both sides of the argument, advocates seem to be seething with frustration. “[W]e’ll be left with the status quo…far too many hungry kids and far too many overweight kids,” NPR quotes U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack saying. Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, is quoted in the same article saying the future SNAP benefits will be on the chopping block no matter what the outcome of this particular bill. “This money is gone,” she says. “Better have it go to low-income kids than to something totally unrelated.” As proponents of the bill see it, rejecting this bill is diving after a particularly elusive bird-in-the-bush instead of hanging on to a beneficial, bipartisan bird-in-hand.
On the other side, though, anti-hunger groups are justifiably furious that SNAP benefits are being used as a kind of social program slush fund. The 106 Democrats who wrote to Nancy Pelosi today said the cuts were “egregious” and Jim Weill of the Food Research and Action Center told NPR that “It should be unacceptable to Congress to pay for anything by cutting food stamp benefits much less for a bill that has in its title The Healthy Anti-Hunger act.” As Lindsay Beyerstein wrote yesterday, it’s particularly illogical to cut food stamps because they are an absolute success, both in terms of feeding people and in getting money flowing into the economy. As U.S. poverty climbs at a record rate, more Americans than ever are depending on food stamps. A 2009 study indicated that before they’re 20, half of American children will live in a household receiving SNAP benefits.
Think Beyond the Government!
As the horse-trading continues on this bill, I believe the bigger picture is that we need to seriously re-assess our spending priorities. While deficit hawks grind money away from social programs and seem to grudge every nickel spent on food or housing for low-income families, I haven’t heard a peep about making cuts in — for instance — the trillion-dollar behemoth that is defense spending. Nor have corn subsidies, which I’ve argued are horrible for the country in almost every possible way, come up for cuts.
My conservative friends and family members often insist the government is supposed to be there to do things that private citizens can’t do, and that power should be limited to obviously enormous projects like running the Air Force and maintaining interstate highways. I have a slightly different perception of an appropriate role for government, but I do agree that it’s a mistake to think we’re helpless if the government doesn’t put in place the programs we want. Increasing real food access in and out of schools in difficult, but there’s lots to be done. As our legislators tussle over making school food improvements vs. preserving food stamp benefits, children and adults are going hungry, and private actions to make food available to them are ever more important.
In no particular order, here are a few ideas — if one intrigues you, explore it, and feel free to share other ideas in the comments!
- Call your legislators and make it clear you support nutrition assistance programs.
- Petition local school boards to purchase more healthy or local food, add a breakfast program, or take vending machines out of the cafeterias (in my home district a phone call to the school superintendent can get you on the board’s monthly meeting agenda).
- Support nonprofits doing school gardening projects, like Urban Sprouts, or improving food access throughout their communities, like People’s Grocery.
- Contribute food, money, or time to a local food pantry or food bank.
- Help promote nonprofit or affordable farmers’ markets in your area.
- Write letters about school food to the editor of your local paper.
- Ask about hunger relief programs at your house of worship. Many churches, temples, mosques, and synagogues support some kind of community supper or food bank.
- Volunteer with a gleaning project like “Backyard Bounty” or the Society of St. Andrew, which glean produce that will otherwise be wasted and donated it to hunger relief organizations.
- Investigate “food rescue” programs happening at your college’s dining hall or business cafeteria. You may be able to volunteer to drive pans of untouched leftovers to soup kitchens.
- Walk or support a walker in Project Bread’s annual twenty-mile “Walk for Hunger,” in which participants raise money for dozens of hunger-related nonprofits — or find a similar walk near you!
If you care about hunger in your community and about healthy food in schools, supporting both SNAP benefits and school food programs in Congress is a good place to start — and only the beginning of what you can do.
Photo from Maulleigh's flickr, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons license.