By Angela Smith-Dieng
At the May 20 meeting of the Hunger Council of Chittenden County, community leaders from across the county gathered to learn about the state of the emergency food system in the county and efforts to decrease hunger. Leaders of food shelves, including those in Burlington, Winooski, Westford and Williston, shared the diversity of challenges they face in meeting the needs of the many families who come to them for food. Community support of food shelves is strong, but food shelves are still unable to provide as much food as they would like to families, and many advocates worry that the demand at food shelves would drastically increase if the Farm Bill being considered in the House of Representatives passes.
The Farm Bill is the primary legislation that authorizes agricultural and food policy in the country. While it includes a variety of agricultural and conservation programs, the bulk of Farm Bill funding supports one program—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), known in Vermont as 3SquaresVT. The Senate version of the bill that may pass very soon (as it is being debated as I write this) contains $4 billion in cuts to SNAP over ten years. These cuts would not likely have an immediate or severe impact in Vermont. However, the version proposed by the House Agriculture
Committee includes $20.5 billion in SNAP cuts over ten years. The House bill would have a serious impact in Vermont as thousands of current participants would become ineligible and thousands more would see a major decrease in benefits. In turn, Vermont would likely see hunger rise in our communities and lines at food shelves get longer.
Already one in seven Vermonters, including one in five children, are considered food insecure, meaning they do not have consistent access to enough food to meet their needs. SNAP, or 3SquaresVT, is the country’s first line of defense against hunger, and the only program that puts money directly into the hands of hungry households to increase their food purchasing power at grocery stores and farmers’ markets.
There are a number of additional nutrition safety net programs that serve particular populations (i.e. school meals, child care meals, meals on wheels, etc.), but SNAP is the program that serves all ages, from birth to death. The vast majority of SNAP households are very poor—the average income is about $6,600 a year for one person or $13,600 a year for a family of four, well below the poverty line. And the vast majority of benefits go to households that include children, elders and people with disabilities.
A wealth of research shows that SNAP decreases food insecurity, alleviates poverty and improves health and education outcomes over time. Yet, despite this proven track record, it remains the program most targeted for cuts in the House Farm Bill. Critics of the program say that program costs have grown too much since the recession. However, the program is predicted to decrease in participation over the next five years as the economy improves and fewer people need the help. Thus, program costs will also decrease, without the need for added cuts.
At Hunger Free Vermont, we are working hard to improve. It is critical that we support all aspects of the nutrition safety net in our local communities—from food shelves to summer meal programs for children—to ensure that children, families and seniors have good nutrition no matter where they are in their day. The fact is that food shelves would not be able to feed all the SNAP participants who would lose benefits if the House bill were to pass. Therefore, it is also critical that we support a strong Farm Bill that protects and strengthens SNAP on behalf of the 100,000-plus Vermonters who depend on its benefits to put food on the table. Hunger Free Vermont, a statewide organization working to end the injustice of hunger and malnutrition for all Vermonters, is doing this advocacy, but we need more voices to share the message. You can help! Call your legislators and tell them we need a strong Farm Bill that protects 3SquaresVT for hungry Vermonters. Learn more about Hunger Free Vermont’s efforts to end the injustice of hunger and malnutrition for all Vermonters at www.hungerfreevt.org.
Angela Smith-Dieng is the 3SquaresVT advocacy manager at Hunger Free Vermont and staff member of the Hunger Council of Chittenden County, an initiative to reduce hunger and improve nutrition in the area. She can be reached at [email protected].