The farm bill can, and should, do more to end hunger in America

The views expressed below originally appeared in The Hill on 9/7/2018.

Soline Dulcio struggled.

She faced depression and unemployment before finally connecting with the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida’s Culinary and Distribution Center Training Program. Last fall, she graduated as the top student of her program, and today she is employed full-time as a prep cook and is flourishing.

When she received her first income tax return, Soline did not hesitate to turn around give back to the very program she received her training from saying, “I’ve been blessed. Let me bless others.”

People like Soline are nothing short of remarkable. They are hardworking mothers, brothers, cousins, sisters. They are our neighbors. The families our 200 network member food banks and 60,000 pantry partners serve are not lesser Americans because they face food insecurity and have fallen on tough times.

We all confront challenging days. We all need a steadying hand from time to time.

As the farm bill progresses on Capitol Hill, we are increasingly alarmed by the irreversible damage the proposed cuts and restructuring of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the House bill could inflict on the communities we serve across the United States.

Let us be clear. We believe that a steady job is the best way for people to feed their families. In our experience, families facing hunger embrace the opportunity for stability and want to work—and the majority receiving SNAP do just that. SNAP helps working families put food on the table while they pursue jobs that will lead them to self-sufficiency. The bottom line, however, is that in a poorly designed effort proponents claim will lift people out of poverty, Congress may compromise people’s pathway to a better life.

In the previous farm bill, under a pilot program established in 2014, Congress examined expanding work requirements and concluded that to avoid adopting uniformed and risky changes, they would provide $200 million for 10 substantial state demonstration projects to find out what truly aids jobless SNAP participants in gaining employment.

The pilots are well underway and are slated to conclude in 2019. Yet, rather than wait for the results, the House of Representatives passed a bill that mandates all states institute sweeping employment requirements to SNAP. The irony is that any programmatic change under the 2018 farm bill will likely take another two years to be implemented. In other words, the demonstrations will be completed before the untested changes will take effect.

In both Orlando and San Antonio, food banks are pillars of their communities and provide far more than food. They are proud to offer culinary training to help people gain marketable new skills. Between the two food banks, more than 900 students graduated and accepted job offers. It is amazing to see individuals succeed who, for a time, did not know how they would put food on the table for their families.

The House version of the farm bill would invest in job training or placement services, but not nearly at the level that would adequately prepare people to enter the workforce. At present, the bill allocates only $30 per person for states to provide employment training. The average cost of effective culinary training courses in San Antonio and Orlando, however, is approximately $3,000 per person.

Our immediate fear is that financial resources and energy that the food bank network presently invests in communities would be redirected to address an uptick in hunger caused by this farm bill. While our nationwide network of member food banks serves more than four billion meals annually, our efforts in assisting Americans facing hunger pales in comparison to the SNAP program. For every meal we provide, SNAP provides 12.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the result of the House legislation’s restructuring of SNAP would result in a more than $17 billion reduction to food assistance benefits. A cut of this magnitude would have a boat-swamping effect on the food bank network and set the fight against hunger back decades in communities across the country.

Let’s not restructure and cut an efficient program under the false pretense that it will put people to work. Instead, let’s partner to help our neighbors in need feed their families and find jobs that offer the promise of a brighter tomorrow.

Contributors: Matt Knott is president of Feeding America, Eric Cooper is president & CEO of San Antonio Food Bank and David Krepcho is president & CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida. Feeding America is the country’s largest hunger-relief organization, comprised of a network of 200 food banks and 60,00 food pantries and meal programs.

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