At the end of September, I wrote about proposed cuts that would eliminate $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) over the next decade. Those cuts were passed by the U.S. House, and Congress will soon resume wrangling over SNAP benefits as it negotiates the farm bill. It's not too late to contact our representatives in Congress and ask them to ensure that no American goes hungry.
A family of four will lose approximately $396 a year in SNAP benefits. That might not seem like much to readers who live well above the poverty line, but for a family that makes less than $11,775 a year, that translates to a loss of 21 meals each month.
The Road to Here
How our government decided to make those cuts is both convoluted and unconscionable.
In 2009, at the height of the recession, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act boosted SNAP by 13.6 percent to help out families most affected by the economic downturn. The higher benefit rate was supposed to continue until inflation caused regular SNAP benefits to catch up with it. However, Congress passed (and the president signed) a bill calling for the end of the higher ARRA benefit rate on October 31, 2013, which means families have recently seen a significant decrease in their ability to purchase enough healthy food for their children.
[Read: 5 Great Diets for the Whole Family.]
This may seem like a reasonable action to take. After all, the economy is improving, and the SNAP benefits are being reduced to the level they would be if the ARRA boost was never implemented. But this is disastrous for the families affected, primarily because the SNAP benefit rate is unrealistic. The rate is based on a cost, determined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for a family of four to purchase and prepare bare-bones meals. Currently, it's calculated at approximately $1.70 per meal. Even at the higher ARRA rate, children weren't getting enough to eat.
What the Cuts Mean
According to the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, the current SNAP benefit allotments are inadequate. They're based on unrealistic assumptions about the cost of food, the time needed to prepare the food that households can buy with the money and access to grocery stores. Let's break this down:
First: food costs. Every child should have access to nutrient-rich food like whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables and healthy proteins. But fresh food is expensive, and $1.70 doesn't go far when trying to eat healthy. At only $1.70 a meal, families have no choice but to buy as many calories as they can. This means the bulk of their diet will be made up of low-cost, pre-packaged food like ramen noodles that does little to nourish the body and makes the most out of salt and additives to be palatable. Fed children can still be malnourished children as the current obesity epidemic shows. Many children aren't overweight because they are eating too much food; rather, they are eating the wrong kinds of food.
Second: preparation time. I am a big advocate for family-prepared meals shared at a table. But proper food preparation takes time, and for many poor families, it would means time taken away from working. Sure, whole-grain rice and dried beans are affordable, but they take hours to prepare. If both parents are working multiple jobs (as many are), they lack the time (money!) to prepare scratch-cooked meals from the food they can afford to buy. This is another reason they turn to low-cost, low-nutrient, pre-packaged junk.
Third: access to grocery stores. Many poor families live in food deserts where getting to the nearest grocery store requires either a car or long commutes on public transportation. For families that already have time constraints and transportation issues, just getting to the grocery store can pose a significant challenge, and they turn to high-priced convenient stores.
To truly nourish the 22 million children in this country who benefit from SNAP (not to mention the 9 million seniors and individuals with serious disabilities), the federal government needs to figure out how to make SNAP more effective so all households have the resources to feed their families healthy food. Nutrition education, including cooking and shopping classes, is part of the answer.
The current $5 billion in cuts just ensures that families living in poverty will continue to struggle with the same obstacles to food security. And now, they have even less resources with which to overcome them.
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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.