Cutting Food Stamps to Pay For School Lunch Programs?

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.


W. C
W. C1 years ago

Thank you.

Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for sharing.

Susanne R.
Susanne R7 years ago

Children. Going. Hungry. In. America? Those words should never have to form a sentence! The millionaires and billionaires should climb down from their ivory towers every once in a while and see how the other 98% live --especially the poorest among them. By locking themselves away in their gated communities and well-guarded compounds, they can pretend that the problem doesn't exist. How shameful!

Helen C. K.
Helen C. K8 years ago

I am a disabled, homebound senior citizen living alone on a very small fixed income. I have paid taxes all my life so others in need could have food stamps and other needed benefits, Now I need food stamps myself to live on, and I am grateful they are there for me now, courtesy of the current taxpayers of this country. I hope that Congress does not cut the food stamp amount. I get $1.25 to purchase each meal, $72 in food stamps per month. A food bank has been helping me some by supplementing my food. But now, their supply of donations has dwindled due to the recession, and the need for their help has grown substantially. They are still able to help me, for which I am very thankful, but with just a few small items each month. If food stamp amounts are cut, I don't know what I can do. I have contacted my legislators, who have replied with standard noncommital messages, thanking me for expressing my opinion. Any other suggestions, anyone?

Patricia Hughes
Patricia Hughes8 years ago

You can not buy, tobacco, alcohol or prepared food with Food Stamps. Food Stamps keep seniors and the poor alive and are minimal. I had to request Food Stamps after medical bills took my retirement, my savings and most of my income. Yesterday, my monthly Food Stamp allotment was cut by 53%! Giving me $2.45 cents per day help toward the ever rising food prices. Cut bombs and bombers or tax the super wealthy not the frail poor.

Annmari Lundin
Annmari Lundin8 years ago

Charity and welfare are only going to help in the short run. Having people depending on charity or handouts is not a solution for the future. More jobs with salaries that can support a family and free pre-natal health care, programs in schools and at healthcenters to provide people with information about healthy foods, help to grow vegetables on your balcony or inside There are many ways that can help getting people back in the right direction of cutting obesity and helping themselves, but not by clinging to welfare and charity to keep people's heads above water. It just deepens the gap between those who have and those who have nots. Use the money towards helping people help themselves instead of growing up in families that generation after generation falls deeper into poverty!

Sarah Solaban
Sarah Solaban8 years ago

A sticky situation, no two ways about it.

Patti V.

this is a sad scenario, and a double edged sword ! the food stamp program SNAP, and the school lunch program usually feed the same poor children, so cutting one to pay for the other is hurting the very one 's these programs were intended to help in the first place!

Nancy Anderson
Nancy Anderson8 years ago

The Food Stamp vs. School Lunch issue is a symptom of a much larger problem. The government is out of control. It’s no longer by the people, for the people. The government is controlled by corporations. Therefore, few decisions make sense to the people. The FDA no longer protects us from the Monsantos of the world or mad cow disease, etc. Environmental protection acts are being overturned. The wars are draining the country past the point that this generation is able to pay off. Corporations are moving jobs out of the USA. Money is no longer put back into the business or the pockets of the people who make the company viable. Corporations negotiate subsidies from the government. The money is going into the pockets of the upper echelon and the re-election coffers. The government can no longer help us until we, the people, take it back from the corporations. This means putting pressure on the corporations to do the “right” things like putting money back into the communities, lowering the pay of the upper echelon and eliminating bonuses. It also means putting pressure on government officials to do the “right” things like stop the subsidies to oil companies & ethanol corn growers, stop contributions from corporations into the election funds, take people with a conflict of interest out of the FDA and EPA management, stop the wars, stop polluters, stop Monsanto, etc. We have to collectively take our government back to solve the Food stamp vs.