LET’S START WITH SOME GOOD NEWS. The Whittier ElderAct Club sponsored a drive that collected nearly 400 pounds of food destined to help feed local kids who don’t have access to the free and reduced school lunch programs during summer vacation. Congratulations to everyone who contributed to the Columbia Opportunities, Inc. Emergency Food Pantry.
This heartening reminder of local generosity arrived last week just as the U.S. House of Representatives voted to approve a farm bill that has provisions meant to help farmers and agriculture in this region. That sounds like good news too, except for the kids who’ll be eating the food collected by the ElderAct Club. That food received by Whittier residents will definitely help feed local children. But think about what 400 pounds of food means. Data from the organization Feeding America indicates that as many as 2,000 kids in Columbia County may not be sure where their next meal is coming from, and 1,300 of them are eligible for federally funded nutrition programs like SNAP, which used to be called food stamps.
Do the math for just the food-stamp-eligible kids. If the 400 pounds of food were evenly divided, that food works out to 5 ounces per kid. That’s equal to five one-cup servings of Cheerios.
Food drives like this one make a difference no matter how much they collect. In New York State food insecurity among children is less prevalent than elsewhere in the nation, yet even here the scope of the problem can’t be addressed by private charity alone. For generations this country has said that helping feed our hungry citizens, children in particular, is a national priority. And the most obvious place where we act on that commitment is through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP is the largest component of the farm bills adopted by Congress every few years.
Earlier this year, the U. S. Senate adopted a bipartisan farm bill that includes funding for SNAP. Last week the House adopted its own farm bill that stripped away all funding for SNAP. Both houses of Congress must approve the same bill for it to become law.
Representative Chris Gibson (R-19th), whose district includes all of Columbia County, worked hard on an earlier version of the House farm bill that reduced funding for SNAP but retained the historic bond between the farm bill and food aid to hungry Americans. He also worked effectively across party lines on measures that will directly benefit small farmers, new farmers and the producers of “specialty crops” (that’s how a Congress oriented toward industrial-sized farms and agribusiness refers to the fruit and vegetables grown in the Hudson Valley).
It’s understandable that Mr. Gibson also voted for the current version of the farm bill, which leaves the future of SNAP funding in limbo. Fearful of a Tea Party backlash, House leaders killed the last farm bill proposal with SNAP attached, knowing that a bipartisan majority in Congress would probably have voted for it.
The demand for SNAP is growing, but not because the government is handing out more generous benefits. It costs more to feed hungry Americans because the number of hungry people has grown. Why? There’s a strong case to make that hunger is a consequence of an economy where wages and employment have not kept pace with the cost of living. And while some conservatives might argue that hungry people will be more motivated to seek work, this theory doesn’t suggest where the jobs to employ these people will come from.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told The New York Times last week that the House would take up the issue of funding SNAP “later.” It makes you wonder whether Mr. Boehner and his colleagues would postpone adequate nutrition for their own families until… later.
SNAP benefits won’t disappear immediately if the House and Senate can’t agree on funding. But the money already available doesn’t address the current need, and detaching SNAP from the popular farm bill means it will slip down the list of House priorities.
All the good work Mr. Gibson has done on the farm bill will mean little if its passage depends on sidetracking or cutting deeply into SNAP. He should vow not to support any final bill that omits SNAP funding, because he knows a great nation can support agriculture and keep its children from going hungry. His constituents are already doing their part. Ask the members of Whittier’s ElderAct Club.