Americans are lined up dozens, hundreds and sometimes thousands deep at food pantries across the nation. One in every six Americans has lost their job in the pandemic, and the number will likely grow much larger before we start adding jobs again. Since March when business shutdowns began to prevent exposure to Covid-19, 1.9 million Texans have filed applications for benefits. That’s more than double all the claims submitted in the state in the entire year of 2019. In Iowa, more people filed for unemployment in March than in all of 2019
While people go hungry, milk is being dumped into fields. Fruits and vegetables are unpicked and rotting. Hogs are going to rendering plants and farmers are killing piglets because there is no room for them. Packing houses, Covid-19 hot spots, were closing until President Trump ordered them to continue operations. In Iowa, if workers don’t return to work as ordered, the administration of Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds says those workers will lose unemployment benefits.
In these circumstances, smart public policy is important to rural and urban America — especially when it is designed to tackle emergency food aid. Unfortunately, the recent Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, or CFAP, from the U.S. Agriculture Department, isn’t smart food policy.
It includes $3 billion for the purchase of fresh produce, dairy and meat that will go to “food banks, community and faith based organizations, and other nonprofits serving Americans in need.”
The problem is that it is a solution driven by ideology rather than practicality. We have great respect for these organizations, but food banks aren’t up to feeding tens of millions of hungry Americans indefinitely.
We already have an amazingly efficient and effective program to do this. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, empowers Americans in literally hours and days to go to their local grocery store and get the food they need.
The nonprofit emergency food system is an essential safety net of last resort in communities across our country. But it doesn’t have the infrastructure to handle the influx of people and food in the pandemic. The chilling drone footage of thousands of people in cars recently lined up at a food bank in San Antonio illustrates this.
Food banks are often run by volunteers and don’t have a lot of storage space and have little freezer space. In Beto’s hometown, El Paso, daily lines are two to three miles long. The National Guard has been deployed, volunteers are stepping up, and people are donating millions of dollars to food banks and pantries. But it’s not enough, even with CFAP. In small towns in rural America like Bussey and Lacona, Iowa, near where Robert and Matt live, the challenges for people to access food from food banks are even greater.
To make this happen, the U.S.D.A. will have to set up an infrastructure of its own to purchase and distribute food. The solution offered by Secretary Sonny Perdue is costly and inefficient. And it will take weeks, if not months, to fully implement; SNAP offers an existing program that can quickly and digitally increase the value of the benefit to existing participants or can get a card into an American’s hand empowering them to buy milk, cheese, bread, cereal, fruits and vegetables and basically all the other food the average American buys at the grocery store.
SNAP depends on a private business infrastructure already in place that can handle this. Our grocery stores do it every day, and do it well. CFAP, without a significant increase in SNAP, unnecessarily puts our food banks in direct competition with our neighborhood grocery stores. In worst case scenarios, the program could lead to a loss of jobs at those stores. It also reduces choice. The U.S.D.A. will be deciding what will wind up on our tables, not consumers.
Food banks have known for years that the best way to feed the hungry is through SNAP.
It makes sense that some of the assistance the U.S.D.A. is providing goes to food banks as part of the safety net of last resort. But to roll out tens of billions in farm and food aid with only small increases in a handful of SNAP pilot projects without expanding access to SNAP to more Americans shifts the burden from creating smart, proven policy that addresses the issue effectively to letting charities attempt to do so, only to most likely fall short.
Every person on unemployment should be invited to enroll in SNAP, and payments adjusted by family size, based on costs of living in the community where the family lives. Online purchasing using SNAP should be expanded to the entire country as quickly as possible. Eligibility should be based on economic, individual and community need. The larger issue of legal status for undocumented immigrants is unresolved, but we know that they play a critical role in our food supply. We also know that, just like the general population, many are now unable to feed themselves. The right thing to do is to include them in any expansion of SNAP, without regard to current immigration status. And people should be able to use SNAP benefits to purchase takeout meals from our local restaurants. This would help keep our restaurants viable in these trying times.
SNAP is one of the most efficient uses of our tax dollars with some of the lowest rates of fraud anywhere in our economy, empowers people with choice and fuels our local economies. You know who uses federal nutrition programs like SNAP at the highest rate? Rural America, especially in towns of 2,500 and less.
As the economy rebounds, people will come off the program with procedures already in place that determine who continues to be eligible. This is exactly what happened in the 2008 recession. U.S.D.A. research shows that not only did increases in SNAP increase food security, but those increases resulted in employment gains as well that continued into the economic recovery.
Secretary Perdue said that the goal of the program is to “provide critical support to our farmers and ranchers, maintain the integrity of our food supply chain, and ensure every American continues to receive and have access to the food they need.”
By intentionally leaving SNAP mostly out of this $19 billion package, the program doesn’t do that out of the gate. CFAP embraces strategies that leave behind grocery stores, abandons effective rural employment strategies and fails to empower millions of hungry Americans from feeding their families by spending SNAP dollars in their own communities. In this administration’s mind, that might be good anti-government politics, but it’s terrible problem-solving.
By expanding and rethinking SNAP, we have a chance to help farmers, rural communities, big cities, grocery stores, restaurants, food banks and — most important — our fellow Americans who are otherwise unable to feed themselves, through no fault of their own.
Matt Russell is a co-owner of Coyote Run Farm. in Lacona, Iowa. Robert Leonard, the news director for the Iowa radio stations KNIA and KRLS, is the author of “Deep Midwest: Midwestern Explorations.” Beto O’Rourke, a former congressman from Texas, is the founder of Powered by People.
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