Hungry for Help
As the lines of hungry people in New Mexico get longer,
Congress considers further cuts.
Our dysfunctional Congress still has not acted on the long-delayed Farm Bill, largely because of the debate between bad and worse in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps. House Republicans have been calling for $39 billion in cuts to food stamps over the next 10 years. Senate Democrats countered with $4 billion in cuts. Both plans would tighten eligibility rules by setting a minimum for "heat and eat" payments by states, through which heating-assistance payments to needy households also qualify those families for higher SNAP benefits.
The House plan, according to the Congressional Budget Office, would kick 3.8 million low-income individuals off food stamps in the first year, with 2.8 million more losing SNAP benefits in succeeding years.
The food-stamp program has already lost funding from the federal stimulus effort, which ran out Nov.1; that amounted to the largest total cut in SNAP appropriations since Congress first passed the Food Stamp Act in 1964. But it's not the only hunger-fighting program to suffer, thanks to sequestration: Meals on Wheels cuts will mean up to 18 million fewer meals for seniors. The Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program has seen its funding slashed by $500 million.
But those are just numbers. In places with high levels of poverty like Grant County, the human impact of hunger and the loss of food assistance can be seen every day in the lines at food banks and soup kitchens. The recession's stimulus dollars may have run out, but for many people here the recession's effects linger.
"For most of middle America, the recession is not over," says Alicia Edwards, director of The Volunteer Center, which provides programs including a food pantry and Silver City's new Commons Center for Food Security and Sustainability ("Uncommon Dreams," November 2013). "Initially, there was a whole wave who needed assistance. But what The Volunteer Center is seeing now are people who had resources, maybe an extended family who could help, but who have now reached the end of those resources. The longer this drags on, the more who are at risk."
The number of people being served by the center's Grant County Community Food Pantry, Edwards says, has doubled in the last six months. Yet over the past three years, because of funding cuts, the average commodity box for needy individuals has dropped from 50 pounds to 30 pounds. "That represents 194,000 meals lost," Edwards says.
At the Silver City Gospel Mission, manager Randy Salars says the number of people served daily in the soup kitchen for lunch has gone from 35 or 40 when he took over in 2011 to 120 people today.
Further cutting the food stamp program, which has been ranked as one of the most effective ways to help fight poverty, makes as little economic sense as it does ethical sense. According to Edwards, studies show that every dollar the government spends on food stamps returns $1.83 in economic benefits to the community.
Even as people like Edwards and Salars worry about the day-to-day struggle of feeding New Mexicans, a group called Food Policy Action has sought to spotlight the larger issues of encouraging healthy diets, reducing hunger, improving food access and affordability, and supporting sustainable agriculture. Last month, Food Policy Action released its ratings of Congress members nationwide. Sadly, you won't be surprised by the results.
On the bright side, New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall scored a perfect 100%, while Sen. Martin Heinrich scored 83%. Northern New Mexico Rep. Ben Lujan Jr. also scored 100% and Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham got an 85%. But our own Second District Rep. Steve Pearce scored 15%, below even his 29% score for the 112th Congress. (To learn more, see www.foodpolicyaction.org.)
In June, Pearce voted against a measure that would have restored $20.5 billion in cuts to SNAP included in the House Farm Bill. He also voted for an amendment that would have eliminated the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, which provides support for farmers' markets, community-supported agriculture, and other local agriculture business models.
Perhaps understandably, local hunger activists aren't waiting for a light bulb to go on in Washington, DC. "We need an ongoing community conversation about food — growing it, how many are struggling — and economic development," says Edwards. "Too many conversations about economic development are happening in the same echo chamber, the same things over and over. There are a million good ideas out there, but they are not at the table."
There's no time to waste, she adds. Given the depth of the hunger problem and the magnitude of funding cuts, Edwards says, "I don't think anybody has any idea what's coming. I don't think we're prepared."
To learn more about The Volunteer Center, see tvcgrantcounty.org. You can donate online at tvcgrantcounty.org/donate or send to PO Box 416, Silver City, NM 88062. To learn more about the Silver City Gospel Mission, see silvercitygospelmission.org. You can donate online by clicking the link under "Donate," or send to PO Box 5198, Silver City, NM 88062. Both organizations are nonprofit and donations are tax deductible. For information about food banks in other southern New Mexico communities and other ways to give, see the Feeding America website, www.feedingamerica.org.
David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.
PO Box 191
Silver City, NM 88062