Put food insecurity back on Congress’s table


I sat down to watch one of my favorite shows in late February, expecting to have the usual fare of politics and humor characteristic of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Instead, I listened to Lori Silverbush and Kristi Jacobson, the producers of “A Place at the Table,” talk about their documentary on hunger in America.

Afterwards, interest piqued, I checked out the documentary.  The next 90 minutes were a reminder of the dismal living conditions of millions of Americans. I haven’t been able to get those scenes out of my head.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the modern food stamp program that provides food assistance to families at or below 130 percent of the poverty line.  Our area is heavily affected by the program.  Washington, D.C. has more SNAP beneficiaries than any state in the union, with 150,000 people, a full 23 percent of the population, having received assistance from SNAP in December according to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC).

Virginia is better off, with only 11.4 percent of the population relying on food assistance. On the surface, that sounds great.  People are hungry, but we are feeding them.  The actual story is not so lovely.

The main issue in the United States is not outright starvation but food insecurity, the uncertainty of the availability of nutritionally adequate and safe food. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service, 17.9 million U.S. households, 14.9 percent of the population, suffered from food insecurity in 2011.  This shortage hits women living alone, black communities and households below 185 percent of the poverty line the hardest. SNAP alleviates some of the problem, but does not address the gap between its 130 percent of the poverty line or lower policy and the reality.  SNAP was created with the optimistic ideal that no American should be at risk of hunger.  How could we fall so far short of the reality?

Worse yet, the need for food assistance has been increasing as funding is cut.  The number of SNAP participants has more than doubled in Rhode Island, Florida, Idaho, Nevada and Utah since 2008.  Additional funding was provided in 2009 to help combat this increase, but the Recovery Act will end on Nov. 1.  This loss will reduce the average SNAP money from an inadequate $4 a day to a measly $1.30 per meal.

So, what? No one in America is truly starving to death.  Unfortunately, according to a study by the University of Washington, 1,000 calories from high-energy dense foods, such as chips and pastries, costs more than 10 times less than 1,000 calories for nutritious low-energy foods, such as fruits and vegetables. The study also found that fruit and vegetables provide more base nutrients, such as potassium and Vitamin C, than base calories. On a food assistance budget, these expensive and energy insufficient foods are the first to go, causing long-term nutritional shortages.  If a mother has to choose between letting go of nutritionally beneficial foods and letting their child starve, she will go for the chips and sugary cereal every time.  Even with these cost-cutting measures, SNAP benefits are often reported to not last the entire month.

Listen.  I am lucky. I have never worried about my next meal in my life.  I imagine that many of you have never experienced food insecurity and don’t understand why it’s a big deal.  But the fact is that millions of children are far worse off. It is ridiculous that a nation as well off as our own, a nation that can afford subsidies for oil, care for the elderly, and run a dying postal industry, cannot provide basic necessities to the poor.

Right now, we’re just tiptoeing around the issue, as if not discussing it will mean it isn’t happening.  Let’s make a concrete change for the better and increase funding to SNAP. Food security is a right. We all deserve a place at the table.