Food bank leaders brace for onslaught

Hunger relief advocate Marlin Martin does not mince words.

“We keep coming up with better ways of putting our fingers in the dike to stop hunger,” said Martin, food program director at Clatsop Community Action, “but we’re running out of fingers.”

Martin and his food bank cohorts across the country will have their eye on Washington in the coming weeks: When the U.S. Congress reconvenes Sept. 9, members will be tasked with crafting a food and nutrition bill by the end of its fiscal year, Sept. 30, when federal nutrition assistance is set to expire.

Between its food bank warehouses and outreach efforts, Martin sees Oregon Food Bank’s role as the “third tier” of food help, after a family’s monthly income and government assistance like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Since April, Clatsop Community Action’s food bank has been distributing fresh produce in the parking lot adjacent to the Department of Human Services’ offices on Marine Drive. They have handed out more than 70,000 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables since then, bag by bag, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. every Tuesday.

On a recentTuesday, dozens of people lined up to receive fresh carrots, celery, apples, oranges, stone fruit, salad greens and herbs.

As he helped hand out bags of fresh produce, Clatsop Community Action’s Executive Director George Sabol estimated that the mobile produce pantry stocked the pantries of 150 households in two hours.

Receiving fresh, seasonal produce from Oregon, California or Arizona can help supplement what families in need are receiving from their monthly visits to food banks or area pantries.

“Donations to the food bank industry as a whole have been down,” said Dusten Martin, the operations manager for Clatsop Community Action’s food bank, who noted that this meant a decrease in dried and canned goods. “An untapped resource was fresh produce … Fresh produce was our silver lining to replace the dried and canned goods.”

Clatsop Community Action oversees the emergency food banks in Seaside and Astoria, which are part of the Oregon Food Bank network. The local food bank has witnessed the tremendous impact the economic recession has had on Clatsop County’s food needs.

In the past four years, the county has seen a 66 percent increase in the number of emergency food boxes distributed at its food banks, which serve as the last resort for local families who don’t have SNAP or have exhausted their monthly benefits.

“They’re asking for more and more food at the produce pantries every week in Seaside and Astoria and we are serving more households,” Marlin Martin said.

A quandary

In the past five years, the annual SNAP budget has more than doubled to $80 billion, thanks primarily to the rise in poverty and unemployment during the recession, changes in state eligibility practices and a temporary increase in benefit amounts distributed by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly known as the stimulus, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The current Republican House majority has emphasized cutting nearly all non-defense discretionary spending, and slashing SNAP falls into its greater goal of reducing the federal deficit.

Since 1977, food and nutrition assistance, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as “food stamps,” has been included in the Farm Bill, which provides American farmers with subsidies, direct payments and crop insurance.

The twinning of the two efforts – and their subsequent ratifications – was viewed as a necessary compromise between the rural and the urban, the conservative and the progressive.

But July 11, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a revised Farm Bill that, for the first time since they were first combined, separated nutrition and food funding from agricultural legislation.

The bill, which split on strict party lines and passed by eight votes, signals that the Republican leadership plans to tackle SNAP separately – a move opposed by 532 agricultural organizations, including the American Farm Bureau Federation.

“There was a tremendous amount of opposition,” said U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon’s first congressional district, who, like the rest of the Democratic caucus, voted against its passage.

A previous iteration of the nutrition bill called for $20 billion in SNAP cuts over 10 years, which would remove at least 90,000 low-income Oregonians from the program, according to the Department of Human Services.

“These proposed SNAP cuts … are equal to the entire Oregon food network – of all 20 of the regional food banks, all 950 hunger relief agencies – turning off the lights, locking the doors and shutting down for more than five years,” said Jeff Kleen, public policy advocate for Oregon Food Bank.

Once the August recess is over, the Senate and House conference committees will have three weeks to try and bridge the gap between the Senate’s proposed $4 billion in SNAP cuts and the House Republican’s leadership’s $40 billion in desired cuts.

The lack of a timely solution is illustrative of this especially intransigent 113th Congress.

“The House has passed very few of the appropriations bills,” Bonamici said. “There are many of them left undone.”

Bonamici hoped that the August recess would provide an opportunity for her fellow representatives to see what budget cuts and stalled legislation had wrought in their home districts.

“I hope that my colleagues on both sides of the aisle are out talking to people,” she said, noting that the sequestration in particular has negatively impacted countless Americans.

In Bonamici’s mind, drastic discretionary spending cuts are not the economic answer.

“Now should be the time we should be investing,” she said.

In Clatsop County, more than 8,000 monthly SNAP participants receive a total of just over $1 million each month. SNAP is often cited as one of the best forms of economic stimulus: “every dollar of SNAP benefits creates $1.79 of economic activity,” Kleen said.

Using Kleen’s data, SNAP is responsible for approximately $1.86 million of economic activity each month in Clatsop County.

Cuts to SNAP are “a double-edge sword,” Marlin Martin said. “Hours at the supermarket and jobs at the supermarket may be lessened … and those who are getting less hours, who are working folks, if for example they get their hours cut, that’s more customers for (the emergency food bank).”

Close to home

Oregonians will be disproportionately affected by the proposed cuts.

“While we are only about 1.3 percent of the country’s population, we would take 5 percent of the cuts that are being proposed,” Kleen said. Oregon will be hit harder because of its especially efficacious SNAP program.

“We in Oregon truly run a model SNAP program,” Kleen said.

Those who work to battle hunger on a daily basis worry that the potential cuts could have a catastrophic impact on Oregon’s neediest and most vulnerable citizens.

“If this rolls out the way they’re talking about, it’s going to be a huge shock to people,” said Jean Kempe-Ware, who works in public relations for Oregon Food Bank.

Though one in five Oregonians are children, one in three SNAP participants who would lose benefits is a child.

“Kids are always disproportionately affected by hunger and poverty,” Kempe-Ware said.

According to a study by the nonpartisan Health Impact Project, 83 percent of those who would potentially lose SNAP benefits fall under the federal poverty line.

The study also found that the proposed cuts would increase U.S. food insecurity, which in turn “could translate to a growth in government and private-sector medical costs for diabetes alone of nearly $15 billion in 10 years.”

The future of the SNAP bill is unclear, but, like the entire federal budget itself, it seems likely that Congress will pass an 11th-hour continuing resolution to keep funding the program – another example of Congress “governing by crisis,” as Bonamici put it.

But, like so many other pieces of stonewalled legislation, Congress must eventually agree on a long-term solution. It’s an issue that affects all Americans, Jeff Kleen said.

“It really is in everyone’s interest that we have kids ready to learn, and coworkers ready to do the best on their job and companies thriving and profiting,” he said. “That’s how we lift our state and national economy.”

The Daily Astorian, 8.27.13. Link: http://goo.gl/ejKx6P

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