How Congress is Cutting Aid to Hungry Kids

SNAP reform and what it says about our country.

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"The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped." – Hubert H. Humphrey

Chef Ann Cooper
Chef Ann Cooper
This past week, Congress passed a bill that would cut the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by close to $40 billion over the next decade. This is on top of legislation passed in 2010 that has already reduced SNAP benefits starting this November.

Misdirection isn't Just for Magicians

Advocates of the legislation trumpet it as a way to curtail abuse of federal assistance (at least until those who game the system figure out ways around the new rules). But the most lasting impact will be on children whose families stop receiving much needed assistance and who could be cut off from the only program that is a source of stable and reliable nutrition: school food.

[Read: The Case for Sticking With the New School Lunch Program.]

The cut to benefits for childless adults without disabilities is the one most often praised for ending abuses that are, quite frankly, rare. The Fox News report of the surfer buying lobster and sushi with his SNAP benefits has taken the place of Reagan's racist portrayal of the "welfare queen." While "lobster boy" merits much of the outrage he provokes, Congress is using him to distract the public while stripping benefits to our society's most vulnerable population: hungry children.

The truth is that 72 percent of SNAP recipients are poor households with children. And another 25 percent are seniors and adults with disabilities. That leaves just 7 percent of SNAP benefits going to unemployed adults, many of whom saw their benefits extended during the recession beyond the three-month limit every three years. The system can be changed to limit incidents of abuse, but it won't be accomplished through wholesale slashing of benefits.

Punishing the Working Poor

The worst of Congress's proposed cuts will affect children who simply don't get enough to eat. Over the next 10 years, Congress plans to cut $11.8 billion by eliminating SNAP benefits based on "expanded categorical eligibility." This would instantly cut off 2.1 million people and another 1.8 million will be denied assistance over the next decade.

Almost all of those affected are the working poor, their children and seniors. They are folks in your neighborhood and mine who have jobs that pay so little they can't make ends meet. Their income often just exceeds the SNAP limit, but they don't have enough money for food after expenses like childcare (which enables them to work) and high housing costs (so they can live in neighborhoods where there IS work).

For example, to be eligible for SNAP, a family of four must make within 130 percent of the federal poverty line ($23,050), or $29,965. As the guidelines stand now, however, the family can qualify if its disposable income (after expenses like childcare and housing) is below the poverty line, but only if the family has no more than $2,000 in assets.

By eliminating this benefit, Congress not only cuts off hundreds of thousands of children from nutritious food through SNAP, it also ensures that approximately 221,000 children who could qualify for free school meals will no longer be eligible.

[Read: Back to School (Lunch) Season: Part 1.]

Who Really Suffers

Eligibility for free school food through the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs works similarly to SNAP. If a family's income slightly exceeds 130 percent of the federal poverty line but qualifies for SNAP through expanded categorical eligibility, the family also qualifies for free school meals. Under the new guidelines, almost a quarter of a million children will go hungry. This, in my opinion, does nothing to limit abuse. In fact, I would call it abuse of a different sort.

In my 15 years of experience as a lunch lady, I can tell you that childhood hunger is real, it is painful and it is growing. I have seen how hungry children can't focus in the classroom and how malnourished children can't succeed in school. Nothing lifts children out of poverty like education. By robbing children of much needed nourishment, we're cutting them off from a lifeline to independent adulthood.

[Read Hungry Vs. Healthy: The School Lunch Controversy.]

As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said at a conference I recently attended, "If we want to close the achievement gap in this country, then we need to close the nutrition gap."

In Share Our Strength's "2013 Teacher's Report," educators say that hunger is a big problem at school.

• Of the teachers surveyed, 73 percent say that they teach children who regularly come to school hungry because there isn't enough food at school;

• Among principals, 87 percent say they feed hungry kids at school at least once a week; and

• Half of teachers say that hungry children in the classroom is a serious issue, the highest level the survey has encountered since it began four years ago.

A teacher in Florida made this comment: "One of my students had a horrible time focusing in class. I began to think that he just didn't care, so I pulled him aside and asked what was going on. He began to cry and told me that he couldn't help it, he was just so hungry. It turns out the only meal he ate every day was his free lunch at school. His family couldn't afford breakfast or dinner."

[Read: 5 Great Diets for the Whole Family.]

Actions Speak Louder than Words

Our national leaders give a lot of lip service to helping hungry children, but the measures Congress is proposing reveal other interests. Congress is making a show of controlling spending by eliminating programs that are the easiest to cut: ones that serve those who have no voice to protest and no power to enact change.

National leadership is setting the tone for the rest of the country, and we are missing an important benchmark of a thriving leader on the world stage: our care and compassion for our children. This past week, I learned of Willingboro School District, a district in New Jersey that decided not to feed children lunch if their parents forget to pay. The idea is to encourage parents to keep current with their child's lunch account. I can't help but wonder if the district tried other means before deciding the best solution is to punish the children.

Fixing abuses to any system is difficult and requires hard work. Punishing the very ones that the system is designed to protect is not only the easy way out, it is also the bully's way out and the coward's way out. It is not befitting of a school district, and it's not befitting of the U.S. Congress; I hope both institutions will examine the consequences of their actions and reconsider them.

[Read: Food Fight: School Lunch, a 'Battlefield'.]

For more from Chef Ann about school food reform, visit The Lunch Box.

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Chef Ann Cooper is a celebrated author, chef, educator and enduring advocate for better food for all children. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Ann has been a chef for more than 30 years, over 15 of those in school food programs. Her books, Bitter Harvest and Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children, established her as a leading advocate for safe, sustainable food. Known as the Renegade Lunch Lady, Ann has been honored by The National Resources Defense Council, selected as a Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow and awarded an honorary doctorate from SUNY Cobleskill for her work on sustainable agriculture. In 2009, Ann founded Food Family Farming Foundation (F3), a nonprofit focusing on solutions to the school food crisis. F3's pivotal project is The Lunch Box, a web portal that provides free and accessible tools, recipes and resources to support school food reform.