By many indicators, America is recovering from the recession that hit six years ago. The reported rates of employment, the GDP and the stock market are all moving in a positive direction. But when it comes to food security – the ability of Americans to feed themselves and their families – things are still far worse than before the market crash of 2008.
In 2013, one in seven households had trouble providing food for everyone at least some time during the year, according to a report released last month by the U.S. Agriculture Department. That’s more than 49 million people, including 15.8 million children, struggling to pay for healthy, affordable meals in one of the wealthiest nations on earth.
Yet, the real picture is likely even worse than the report suggests. In November 2013, Congress allowed an automatic cut to funding for SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that serves millions of low-income individuals and families. Again in early 2014, Congress and the White House slashed the program by an additional $8.55 billion over a decade, a reduction of around $90 per month for each of 850,000 households. The hardship imposed by these SNAP cuts were not reflected in the food insecurity report.
What these cuts do is privatize hunger relief. Whenever the public safety net – SNAP, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), the National School Lunch Program and Older Americans Act nutrition programs such as Meals on Wheels – is weakened by our elected officials, food banks become overwhelmed with demand. The work they and groups such as Mazon, the Jewish response to hunger, do is commendable, but they are not solutions to a society-wide problem and a national shame.
Strengthening the public safety net is a matter of fairness. But the root causes of food insecurity are the insufficiency of jobs that pay a living wage, adequate child care that allows parents to work to feed their families and better transportation and urban planning to reduce the time and expense for workers to commute to places of employment.
As we approach a time of introspection on Yom Kippur and think of how we can help address the needs of those less fortunate, we should consider the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Offer your compassion to the hungry, and satisfy the famished creature.” That’s the expectation Congress needs to hear from us when it considers legislation such as the 2015 Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act.