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SNAP Challenge Wraps Up as Program Cuts Loom

Kristen Miale

Last week, I took the SNAP Challenge, meaning that beginning Sunday my family of four ate on a SNAP (food stamp) budget of $4.50 per person, per day. We managed, but it was difficult. We ran out of milk by Thursday. I ate rice and beans for lunch four days in a row. One night, my son was so angry at the limited food choices that he refused to eat anything and we endured a long evening with a very grumpy and hungry teenager. Throughout the course of week, I spent 8 hours planning and cooking. Fortunately, I have a fully equipped kitchen, know how to cook healthy meals, and had the time. These are three critical resources that many low-income families do not possess.

As the week ended (and my family rejoiced), I was immensely thankful that I didn’t have to turn around and do it all over again.  I thought about the constant battles I would be having with my sons and constantly having to explain why we can’t afford their favorite foods.

The challenge heightened my awareness of the expenses we’ve incurred since the beginning of school:  school supplies ($500), field trip ($5), Boy Scout uniform ($60), and soccer cleats ($54).  The school-related items all came with the disclaimer, “if this is a hardship for you, please let your student’s teacher know.” I counted 4 times this disclaimer came home on a form, not including the free lunch application.  The barriers that consistently confront low-income families overwhelm me.

Which is why the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is so vital. While it’s painful to tell your child they cannot take part in an activity, no parent should have to tell their child they cannot eat. Yet, this is what happens every day in Maine where one in four children live with food insecurity. For these families, SNAP is a vital resource.

As I was wrapping up my week on a SNAP budget, the US House of Representatives passed a $39 billion cut to the program. Thankfully, Maine’s two Representatives, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree and Congressman Mike Michaud, did not support gutting the program that 250,000 Mainers depend on to access food.

If these cuts were to become law, it’s estimated that approximately 63,000 Mainers would be kicked off SNAP. No one can look for a job, be productive, or learn in school on an empty stomach. Gutting SNAP will do more than hurt, it will crush the ability of families to break the cycle of poverty.

At Good Shepherd Food Bank, we often hear people say, “we can cut back on government spending on SNAP because food banks will step in and help.” Although the Food Bank and our hundreds of local partner organizations across the state are doing everything we can to provide nutritious food for Maine families in need, there is no way we could fill the meal gap if 63,000 Mainers lost their SNAP benefits.

Low-income families across the nation are already facing a scheduled reduction in SNAP as benefit increases enacted as part of ARRA to provide additional assistance during the recession come to an end. A family of 4 will see their maximum benefits cut by $36 a month starting in November, amounting to a loss of 233 meals over the course of a year. After the November cut, the average SNAP benefit will fall to less than $1.40 per person per meal, hardly enough for a Starbucks Coffee, let alone an adequate nutritious diet.

Together with this scheduled reduction, the cuts passed in the House bill would result in 1.5 billion lost meals in 2014. That’s more meals than the entire nationwide network of Feeding America-affiliated food banks is on track to distribute in the coming year. The additional landslide of need would bury us all.

While steady, good paying jobs are the best solution to hunger and poverty, jobs remain elusive for many families. Despite meager economic growth, many Mainers remain out of work or are underemployed. SNAP responds to economic conditions, providing assistance when families need it most. We must keep the program strong while the economy is recovering to ensure families have the opportunity to get back on their feet.

Hunger is a national problem and it is one that needs a national solution, and that starts with a strong federal commitment to programs like SNAP. Fighting hunger is a public-private partnership. We need a strong charitable system AND a strong federal anti-hunger safety net, and for that reason we must protect SNAP.