Ohio Food Banks, Lawmakers React to SNAP Reform

 

Words by Alex Kamczyc and Alec Slovenec

 

On Feb. 12, the White House released its budget plan for 2019, the second for the new administration. The budget, which projected an economic growth rate of three percent, proposed cuts to numerous government programs including the FBI, the EPA, and government assistance programs like Medicare and Social Security. It also plans to raise military spending by 777 billion dollars.

 

However, perhaps the most notable change was the 27.4 percent cut to SNAP benefits received by 41 million people in the United States. A change that’s leaving many, including the food banks that work to serve low-income families in Ohio, unsure of the future.

 

“We’ve all based our strategies on how to end hunger around the current situation,” says Colleen Benson, manager of foundation and government relations for the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank. She had recently gotten back from a conference in D.C. that partially dealt with this new budget proposal. “If SNAP were to be cut, that’s millions more people that have greater food insecurity and we would struggle for how to make up for that.”

 

SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, provides food assistance and economic benefits to low-income and no-income families and people in need. Often referred to as “food stamps” it is the largest food assistance program in the United States.

 

The budget plan, which is set to cut $213 billion from the program over the next ten years, will replace food stamps with a new  “Harvest Box,” which will provide beneficiaries with shelf-stable foods rather than a SNAP account they could use to buy food at grocery stores.

 

Info graphic provided by the Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank. The dots represent the number of food banks in America.

 

“It’s a way for the federal government to save some money,” says Benson. “I haven’t seen in any proposals about how are these boxes to be delivered. Who is paying for the distribution of these boxes? It would either be the states or non-profit organizations like ours that would have to pick up the costs for that…Local organizations who are providing local relief are already pretty strapped.”

 

The “Harvest Box,” has drawn criticism from a number of other people, including Ohio Representative Janine Boyd.

 

“If Blue Apron, or something like that, is what the federal administration thinks is an answer that would fix the issue of nutrition and the deficit in healthy food options for people in poverty, I would adamantly oppose that as much as possible,” says Boyd.

 

Boyd had experience with government-provided foods while she was working at Freedom School. This summer literacy program was for children of impoverished families to attend all day and improve their reading skills. When Boyd served the children state-provided meals, she was less than impressed. Some of the food was still frozen when it arrived at lunch time; other times, it was moldy.

 

“It was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen in my life, and I refused to keep feeding my kids that, says Boyd. “There’s a reason the government doesn’t have a restaurant”

Food provided by the Akron-Canton Food Bank. The Organization provides food for hunger relief partners that operate in eight Northeastern Ohio counties.

Aside from her personal experience, Boyd says that because of the way low-income people are viewed in society, a Harvest Box provided for them would likely be “the least nutritious, the least expensive possible.”

 

“The fact of the matter is, as a society, we don’t value people if they’re in poverty. There’s plenty of examples of that,” says Boyd. “If we don’t value people that way, what do I think this lunch is going to look like? We have precedent.”

 

Ohio  Representative Tim Ryan has also been vocal on criticizing the “Harvest Box” program.

 

“The Administration’s proposal is misguided and does little to help people in need. This is clearly just an attempt to mask President Trump’s real goal: to cut SNAP,” says Ryan. “With stagnant wages, families are struggling to make ends meet, and this ‘food box’ joke is just offensive.”

 

14.8 percent of Ohio residents received some form of SNAP benefits between the years of 2014 and 2016. Last year, food banks like the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank handed out 26 million meals, making an average of 92,000 meals a day.

 

SNAP has also provided over $250 million dollars in benefits to the Akron-Canton region alone.

 

Info graphic provided by Akron-Canton Regional Food bank. The orange represents the counties where the ACR operates.

 

“SNAP is truly the first line of defense for hunger relief in this country,” says Benson. “For every one meal that a food bank like ours provides the SNAP program provides about 12 meals.”

 

The budget also plans to cut programs offered by SNAP like the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP for short) which is a meal program that helps provide food services for senior citizens in need of assistance. A type of foodbox is already offered as a part of this program. The cut would cause a loss of over 145 million meals to seniors.

 

“Two-thirds of the people that receive SNAP benefits are either children, senior citizens and the disabled,” says Benson. “A lot of times it is their only resource.”

 

Patti Harjung, a trustee for the Brimfield Community Cupboard, says that even without budget cuts, the resources SNAP provides are limited. She says that many people are not able to receive all of the foods they need, which is why many of them go to community cupboards in search of food.

 

“There is a great need for groceries,” says Harjung. “Every town in Portage County has a designated food cupboard. I can tell you that all of us are keeping very busy giving groceries out to folks. Some of the folks I have talked to about their food stamps have said that they get very small amounts of money from food stamps, and it’s not enough to get them through the month.”

 

Along with SNAP users, the new budget proposal could also affect jobs in Ohio. This is due in large part to the proposed elimination of the Corporation for National Community Service, which oversees the Americorps program, a voluntary civil society program that is dedicated to helping the critical needs of the community it serves.  Last year, over 8,500 volunteers served at nonprofits in Ohio working on programs to fight the poverty issue through this program

 

A man looks for his food order at the Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank. The food bank has distributed nearly 32.9 million pounds of food in 2017.

 

The proposal also affects local grocery store’s and their economy. Marketplace.com estimated that $70 billion is spent annually on food stamps, which supports stores when beneficiaries use that $70 billion on buying their food.

 

Proponents of the proposal have argued that these changes in the program are natural and should be welcomed in an ever changing economy. Brandon Lipps, administrator for the Agriculture Department’s food and nutrition service argues that these changes could help improve the way many americans get their food.

 

“The market is changing in how people get their food,” said Lipps to the Akron-Beacon Journal. “I think we in the government have a duty to be changing with that market.”

 

Boyd, while against Trump’s proposal, recognizes issues with SNAP and the hunger safety net the U.S. currently has in place. She says that impoverished people are unable to travel to grocery stores, which are seldom found in some rural and urban communities. Without transportation, they cannot even get to the grocery store to use their SNAP cards.  In her opinion, the real issue is public transportation.

 

“The fact of the matter is, people who are in poverty typically live in places where access to fresh produce and meat and vegetables and dairy is not easy,” says Boyd.

 

As of now, the budget is only a projection, and many analysts doubt that any of the proposed changes will actually happen. Still, the possibility of these changes have made many food banks concerned.

 

“Obviously we don’t have the space, we don’t have the staffing or the funding to be able to make up for cuts like that,”says Benson. “We’re very concerned about how we would manage.”