LIZ WILLIAMS is the director and president of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. Besides her work with SoFAB, she is a lawyer who writes about the legal aspects of food, reflecting culture, policy and economics.
Read Liz’s previous column on SNAP here – http://southernfood.org/okra/?p=1156
I recently wrote about the issues surrounding the recent attempt to limit the food choices that SNAP recipients should have at the grocery store. I did not know that at that time the very nature of SNAP itself would soon be challenged. But today the attempt to balance the budget by limiting SNAP is a bigger and more threatening issue. Not just limiting the choice of this or that, this move threatens the very existence of these benefits.
SNAP is an important program for many reasons. First, it feeds hungry people. That is its most important component. Those people who use SNAP benefits need them. Abuse has reached an all-time low. And with the recession there is increased need.
If the budget for SNAP is cut and it is changed from an entitlement program – a program that pays for anyone who qualifies – to a budgeted one that becomes a block grant program, there will be lots of hungry people. Right now SNAP feeds those whose income is below the poverty line, but it also serves those who are left hungry because of disaster. Just this year there have been floods and storms that left many people homeless and temporarily without the resources to feed themselves. Depending on when the disaster hits, those unfortunate people might not be able to be fed.
By arguing that food banks and faith-based charities can feed the hungry, because it is not the federal government’s responsibility to do so, those trying to cut the SNAP budget are being very short-sighted. They make assumptions about the ability of the food charities to meet the need. They overestimate. With the recession food charities are seeing a reduction in gifts. Some food banks have had to shut down, albeit temporarily, because they did not have enough food to stay open. This reduction in gifts, both direct food gifts and financial gifts, occurs at the same time as need is increased. If people were turned away from SNAP because the budgeted funds had been exhausted, the private food charities could not feed them.
But there would also be other consequences that we would not see immediately. Health care costs would probably rise, especially for the elderly. Those already on Social Security would be a greater drain on an already burdened system. Those with nutrition and diet critical illnesses, like diabetics, would also likely place more burden on the medical system, as their diets are affected by the lack of reliable food. Children would be hungry. That would affect their ability to learn, also creating the long-term problem of under-educated children who become adults who are chronically under-employed. More children will be born prematurely or at low birth weight, requiring expensive medical care, if mothers do not have the proper nutrition. Crime would increase. All of these ills might take a while to materialize after limits would be imposed on SNAP, but the problems will eventually become more than predictions. They will become real.
And more than the human problems, there will be economic problems. Currently SNAP money is spent in grocery stores in each state where the SNAP recipients use them. This money creates jobs in the grocery store and beyond. Currently the USDA has documented that for every dollar spent, $1.90 is generated. Farmers, food manufacturers and other food related industries are sustained by SNAP. Limiting it will mean job loss, placing even more burden on the private food charities.
Solving these problems, which we would have created for ourselves, will cost much more than paying for food. Food is the cheap solution. And it is the immediate solution. And it is one that will prevent suffering. Balancing the budget on the stomachs of the poor will just be a drop in the current budget while at the same time creating a gaping hole in the society, which will cost us much much more money in the future.