No work? No food.
If Washington has its way, the most food-insecure people and families in Southern California—and an estimated 5 to 7 million people across the United States—could lose their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits if recently proposed changes to the food programs are enacted.
The fight is not over to ensure that more than 9.2 billion meals over the next 10 years are not lost for Americans struggling with hunger.
SNAP, known in California as CalFresh, is an undeniably successful and cost-effective food-assistance program that involves education, empowerment and access for those most in need.
But if adopted as written in the most recent version proposed by the House Agriculture Committee, the Farm Bill would result in devastating repercussions for those who are already food insecure in our country.
And exactly who would be affected? Your neighbors. Your children’s teachers. Your colleagues. The barista at your favorite coffee shop. Senior citizens and people with disabilities. Veterans. Maybe even your own family.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture economic data reports that 42 million people nationwide experience food insecurity, and 13 million of them are children. In Orange County, Los Angeles County, Ventura County, Riverside County and San Bernardino County combined, more than 3 million people are food insecure.
Government and private programs are the primary means of battling hunger, but for every 12 meals that SNAP provides, the Feeding America national hunger relief network of 200 food banks—which includes Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County, the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, FOOD Share in Ventura County, and Feeding America Riverside and San Bernardino Counties—can each only provide one. The charitable sector will not be able to solve hunger alone.
The new USDA proposal, with Congress’s indiscriminate cuts, threatens to undermine this already stressed and compromised system to devastating effect on communities across the country, and Southern California is not immune.
The strictest of the proposed rules requires parents of children over the age of 6 to be working or in job training 20 hours a week within the first 30 days of receiving benefits. Failure to do so would result in loss of benefits for 12 months. Any subsequent infraction would result in loss of benefits for 36 months per lapse—that’s a full three years of potentially devastating, frightening and damaging food insecurity and poor nutrition for families.
We believe that it’s reasonable to ask able-bodied adults to work or participate in training programs in exchange for food assistance. But guess what? The federal government does this already, despite attempts by this administration to portray SNAP and CalFresh recipients as welfare abusers.
A work requirement already exists under current law, for adults without disabilities who have children over age 6, but it allows three months to obtain the required employment.
The proposed law would allow just 30 days to not only obtain employment but to go through all required screenings, orientation and on-boarding. Meeting that deadline is unrealistic. Even if a recipient received a job offer on the first day of looking, it can take weeks before the new hire is working a full schedule.
What’s more, expecting someone who is already unemployed or underemployed and facing child-care stresses to have proof of employment in 30 days or face 12 to 36 months of food-denying penalties for their families is not only unrealistic, it’s unjustifiably cruel.
As of November 2017, more than 42 million people were enrolled in SNAP and almost nine of 10 SNAP participants lived in households that included a child, a senior or someone who is disabled. In fact, nearly two-thirds of SNAP participants are children, seniors or people with disabilities. Benefits average about $1.40 per person, per meal and all purchased foods must fall under USDA guidelines to be eligible.
Creating greater barriers to SNAP for those who are already struggling can have devastating effects on children and seniors. Missing even a few meals can have far-reaching consequences to their overall health.
For children, missed meals can mean more absences from school, more illness and more trips to the emergency room. Seniors who miss meals may become ill and unable to live independently.
The bill claims to cushion the work requirement by providing access to workfare or job training to unemployed or underemployed SNAP recipients, but it doesn’t. The proposed budget for these programs is so small they can’t possibly pay for what is needed at the most basic level.
Feeding the food insecure in the United States isn’t just about addressing an immediate need—daily hunger—it’s also about empowerment, education and establishing healthy habits for life. It’s about families planning and preparing nutritious meals together so children continue these behaviors as they grow. It’s about survival now, but also preventing health problems that occur when there is a lack of fresh, nutrient-rich food and an inability to select and prepare it.
Compromising SNAP also can undermine local economies. The program is structured to work within the community grocer and farm system, generating business for retail and related jobs in the region. Every CalFresh application generates $4,470 in local economic impact, according to Feeding America’s 2017 Map the Meal Gap study.
We understand that changing and improving SNAP will need to address competing priorities, but Americans having the ability to feed themselves and their families should be fundamental. Any reductions to SNAP should be unacceptable to Congress—and you.
Nicole Suydam is CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County. Michael Flood is chief executive of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. Stephanie Otero is chief executive of Feeding America Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. Monica White is president and CEO of FOOD Share, Ventura County’s Food Bank.