Access to affordable nutritious food is a basic human right, not a privilege. However, for nearly 1 out of 8 Americans, hunger is a reality—as evidenced by the food insecurity rates which have remained at around 12 percent over the past three decades. What our nation desperately needs is a solution that dismantles the status quo. Enter the 2018 Farm Bill.
Last week, it was announced lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have agreed upon Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provisions in the 2018 Farm Bill—and are set to pass a version which does not cut SNAP or impose harsh work requirements—the benefits program that keeps millions of Americans from going hungry. While this version of the Farm Bill is a step in the right direction towards fighting food insecurity and hunger, there is a large amount of work that needs to be done to protect SNAP’s role in lifting people out of poverty and rebuilding economies in the face of false narratives. We are nowhere near finished.
The original provisions designed by the House in the 2018 negotiations call attention to the current long-standing widely adopted narrative—that SNAP disguises the need for economic justice as a moral battle between those who “work and deserve” and those who “aren’t trying and expect a handout.” The original proposed provisions within the Farm Bill threatened to expand and intensify work requirements in SNAP while changing eligibility criteria and benefit rules, a disadvantage to those who the program is intended to serve.
Many lawmakers and society as a whole fall prey to the false notion that hard work and employment are the silver bullet solution to rise out of poverty. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) statistics, nearly half of Americans who benefit from SNAP come from households that are employed, and two-thirds of recipients are children, elderly, or disabled, further proving that simply having a job does not prevent hunger. The fact that SNAP caseloads increased during a time of economic recovery and growth (from 2003-2007) suggests more fundamental problems in the economy. If the poverty rate remains the same while unemployment falls, lack of work is not the culprit. Rather, the obstacles are low wages, stagnant wages, variable and uncertain work hours. In a phrase—economic injustice.
In order to better understand and actually solve hunger and transform the current systems in place, we need a new narrative. One that goes beyond just feeding the hungry and lifts up the long-lasting sustainable solutions that communities across the country are building. One that challenges our current food systems and is based on the fundamental human right to nutritious food. We also need to dispel the myths that SNAP is over-used or misused and prevents people from seeking work. According to the USDA-ERS, in 2014 SNAP benefits raised an estimated 4.7 million people out of poverty, including 2.1 million children. SNAP is also a well-researched economic multiplier to the tune of 1.75, meaning that for every US$1 spent, US$1.75 is recirculated in the economy and SNAP also puts more money into the pockets of farmers—for every US$1.00 increase in SNAP, up to 10 cents makes it way to the farmer.
According to a recent WhyHunger survey, 67 percent of Americans believe it is the responsibility of the U.S. government to put systems in place to combat hunger. However, 68 percent feel the U.S. government does not have adequate systems in place. If strengthened and administered effectively and justly, SNAP is a proven, logical program that can simultaneously benefit those needing access to nutritious food during times of hardship and the overall economy.
But it’s not just about increasing access to food. We need to look at current social policies and institute more sustainable practices to ensure economic and social justice.
We need to advocate for just economic justice and true living wages for all. The current minimum wage is not sustainable, and many individuals are underpaid, and often underemployed. While trying to feed their families, these individuals also have to juggle basic costs of living including housing, health care, and education which continue to rise and outpace inflation. Not to mention the prevalence of low wage employers who rely on government assistance programs, like SNAP, to subsidize their employee’s wages while reaping huge corporate payouts at the top. Programs such as SNAP help to close this gap and provide these families with the assistance they need to feed their families today, but without addressing the larger inequities families will be forced to continue to rely on these programs and struggle to make ends meet.
While the protection of the SNAP program within the Farm Bill is an important victory, it is merely a stepping stone on the path towards eradicating hunger and food insecurity. Hunger is preventable, and with better legislation and protection of pre-existing practices in place aimed at eradicating food insecurity, we can make the dream of access to healthy and nutritious food AND living wages a reality. We all deserve the opportunity to live a life of dignity, where we can provide healthy food and nourishment for ourselves, our families and our communities.