Taking food from hungry Rhode Islanders

Taking food from hungry Rhode Islanders

By Andrew Schiff

Commentary appeared in The Providence Journal on Friday, April 27

On April 12, Michael Conaway, the chairman of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, released his draft of the 2018 Farm Bill. The Farm Bill is typically reauthorized every five years through a bipartisan effort, but this plan is only backed by committee Republicans. It lacks the support of Democrats because it severely cuts the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Under this plan, thousands of Rhode Islanders would lose SNAP benefits or have their benefits reduced.

SNAP is our nation’s most effective anti-hunger program. Eligible households receive an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card, which is loaded with benefits once a month for the purchase of food. SNAP benefits are modest — averaging just $132 per month per person — but SNAP can mean the difference between having food and going hungry.

The proposed Farm Bill would apply strict time limits on SNAP eligibility to those who are not working, unless someone is disabled, too young or too old to work, or has dependent children under age 6. This policy assumes that SNAP is a deterrent to work and it gives jobless individuals a stark choice: work or go hungry.

We can all agree that helping people get good-paying jobs is a worthy goal, but rigid time limits on SNAP won’t remove any barriers to employment. Often the unemployed are between jobs or have seasonal jobs or lack reliable transportation to work or can’t afford child-care while they work. Given this reality, time-limiting SNAP for jobless adults is just an added punishment for being poor.

At the Rhode Island Community Food Bank and our network of 155 member agencies, we see people who are newly in need of food assistance every day. We offer immediate help, while at the same time urging eligible families to apply for SNAP. We promote SNAP because it boosts the buying power of struggling families where they need it the most — in the supermarket.

Yet, at the end of each month, the lines at food pantries and meal programs grow long because many families use up their SNAP benefits and don’t have any money left for food. This situation will only worsen if current SNAP recipients lose their benefits entirely. Draconian cuts to SNAP will leave a massive meal gap in Rhode Island that the Food Bank will never be able to fill.

The proposed Farm Bill is a lost opportunity. The reauthorization of the Farm Bill is usually when Congress looks for ways to improve the program. A few small changes — for example, raising benefit levels to keep up with the real cost of food — could significantly reduce food insecurity in Rhode Island and across the country.

Rather than cutting back on food assistance, the best way to assure a healthy and productive workforce in the future is to help everyone receive adequate food today. We should not deny SNAP to people who are desperately in need of food. Let’s ask Congress to rip up this draft of the Farm Bill and produce a new version that strengthens SNAP and protects all Americans from hunger.

Andrew Schiff is CEO of the Rhode Island Community Food Bank.