Farm bill may bring greater cry for food aid

Sue Guinn Legg • Feb 2, 2014 at 9:39 PM

The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday approved a revised version of the long-debated farm bill that will cut $8.6 billion from the federal food stamps program.

Hammered out in a bipartisan conference, the bill advanced to the Senate where it is expected to be approved Tuesday.

The Feeding America network of more than 200 regional food banks nationwide has fought long and hard against the bill’s reduction of federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and reiterated its criticism of the bill following Wednesday’s House approval.

But with the $8.6 billion cut down from the nearly $40 billion reduction originally proposed, Feeding America acknowledged the food stamp program is unlikely to fare better in further debate.

Instead, the food bank network is bracing for a greater demand on its already stretched resources and encouraging Congress and the president to work together on viable polices and programs to alleviate hunger in America.

“Although national unemployment rates are slowly improving, economic recovery remains elusive for millions of low-income families,” Feeding America CEO Bob Aiken said in statement released following Wednesday’s House vote.

“Congress should be strengthening and protecting anti-hunger programs like the Supplemental SNAP, not cutting benefits, especially at a time of high need.”

“While we cannot support the farm bill agreement because of the deep cuts to SNAP, we also recognize that failure to pass this farm bill would not ensure a better long-term outcome for SNAP and the low-income families it serves.

“We urge Congress and the president to work together to develop policy solutions that help alleviate the pressures facing low-income struggling families and help them get back on their feet,” Aiken said.

The Farm Bill comes on the heels of an even larger reduction in the SNAP program that took effect nationwide in November with the end of 2009 federal Recovery Act’s boost to the food stamp program.

Effective Nov. 1, SNAP assistance was reduced by approximately $11 per month for each of the estimated 47 million Americans who receive food stamps. The cut was followed by an immediate and marked increase in demand on food assistance agencies nationwide, including Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee and the 200 community based pantries its serves.

Rhonda Chafin, Second Harvest’s executive director, said the food bank’s partner agencies served an average of 40,000 individuals monthly during the six-month period that preceded the November food stamp reduction.

In November, the number jumped to 47,690 people. And for December, with reports still out from 25 percent of the agencies, the number of individuals assisted by the agencies is at 44,346 and climbing.

“Those averages are going up,” Chafin said. “These are the highest numbers we’ve ever seen in Northeast Tennessee, higher than anything our agencies have ever seen.

“We’re very nervous that they are going to continue to grow and if it will outpace our supply, if our agencies will have enough resources. ... It’s going to be difficult.”

The increased need for food came to light in Johnson City earlier this month when Good Samaritan Ministries put out an emergency appeal for donations due to requests for food occurring at a level never before seen at the ministry.

Last week the ministry received 122 requests for food in a single day and after a weather-related closure Wednesday, expected its pantry to be depleted by the end of Thursday without immediate assistance from the community.

The supplemental nutrition provisions of the farm bill are multifaceted and also include small increases in funding for other food assistance programs. The bill provides $205 million in new funding for food banks and other food assistance programs and $250 million for states to pilot innovative employment programs for food stamp recipients.

The bill also includes a Dairy Donation Program to allow the Department of Agriculture to purchase dairy products for distribution to low-income households when market prices dip.

It will also restructure the federal commodity distribution program to serve only seniors and women with children already participating in the program.

“Second Harvest Food Bank and other food banks across the country and the charities we serve remain stretched in our efforts to meet sustained high demand,” Chafin said. “Our national office worked really hard not to have these deep cuts because basically it shifts the cutting of the budget on the backs of the poor, the backs of people who do not have enough to eat.

“Ninety percent of SNAP goes to households that are at or below the poverty level. Seventy-six percent of SNAP goes to households that include a senior, a child or a disabled person.

“The final (Farm Bill) agreement includes $205 million that will go to the Emergency Food Assistance Program for food banks and other agencies. We appreciate that but will it be enough? We do not believe it will,” Chafin said.

The food bank encourages the community to help ease hunger by making a monetary donation, becoming a food bank agency, volunteering or holding a food drive. More information about how to help can be found www.netfoodbank.org or by calling Second Harvest at 279-0430.

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