Last week was a big one for hunger relief advocates. The House Farm Bill proposal was released, and passed out of committee. Now it heads to the House of Representatives for a floor vote in the near future. Before that happens, let’s dive in and see what it could mean for hungry North Dakotans.
First, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as “food stamps,” is the cornerstone of our nation’s efforts to reduce hunger and help struggling families put food on their tables. SNAP helps 42 million Americans and is a safety net for folks who fall on hard times.
Nearly 54,000 North Dakotans rely on SNAP on any given day to put food on their table. Forty-three percent of those receiving benefits are kids and another 28 percent are seniors. They are working families struggling to make ends meet, senior citizens on fixed incomes, veterans and individuals with disabilities. They are our neighbors, like Shirley, Jodi and Steve. (For more SNAP stories, click HERE)
On average, SNAP recipients use benefits for eight months and receive $1.32 per meal per person. That means one person gets just $3.96 per day to eat. It’s pretty hard to eat quality, nutritious meals for that. Check out the rest of the SNAP facts HERE.
IMPACT OF THE HOUSE FARM BILL
The House Farm Bill proposes several changes to SNAP that will impact our hungry neighbors and increase demand on our state’s charitable feeding network (food pantries, soup kitchens, etc.).
Let’s start with WORK.
We agree that work is a great way for people to help lift themselves out of poverty. That’s part of our strong, ND culture. We see that SNAP recipients who can work, do. In N.D., 80 percent of households receiving SNAP have one or more family members currently working, or worked in the past year. The problem is they aren’t making enough to pay all of their bills – they may have high childcare costs, high medical bills or high housing costs. They may have seasonal employment giving them an uncertain number of hours. They often have income, but it’s just not enough to pay all their bills and put food on their table.
Currently, if you are considered an “able-bodied” person, SNAP requires that you work at least 20 hours per week, be enrolled in a job training program or exempted (due to age, location or other factors). If you aren’t, you are limited to getting SNAP benefits for three months out of a three-year time-frame. This is what is currently in place and required of SNAP recipients. (In North Dakota, we only have two counties that operate a SNAP Employment & Training Program: Burleigh and Cass. If you live in another county, there isn’t an employment training program available to you.)
The House Farm Bill proposal changes the work requirements. An individual would have one month to find a job or enroll in training; and if you didn’t find a job that consistently gives you 20 hrs/week or enroll within those 30 days, you will be sanctioned for one year. That means you wouldn’t get food assistance for a full 12 months.
Taking away someone’s food is not going to help them get a job. Instead of focusing on finding a job, their immediate focus will be on finding their next meal. If SNAP isn’t available to them, they’ll turn to their local food pantry or soup kitchen.
There are nearly 215 food pantries/soup kitchens in the state and quite frankly they are already stretched thin and at or over capacity. As the only food bank in N.D., the Great Plains Food Bank is already distributing over one million pounds of food a month. We don’t have the capacity to fill the gap that could be left by SNAP. Though we will try our best, we can’t help but worry that people will go hungry.
SNAP has an important impact on local economies. SNAP benefits allow a family to make purchases at their local grocery store or retailer. By investing their benefits locally, they help keep the small, rural grocery stores open. Last year, over $78 million benefits were given out in North Dakota. The loss of any benefits would impact retailers as well.
The House Farm Bill also proposes several eligibility changes that could take benefits away from some people and cut benefits for others. Again, increasing hardship for low income folks and putting increased pressure on local food pantries.
The proposed changes would also create a new burden for the state. Without getting too wonky, changes to the asset test, categorical eligibility, job training and tracking, and child support systems (which are proposed) would require states to set up new processes, tracking systems, additional paperwork, increased verifications and even employ additional staff to administer and oversee. North Dakota already faces budget challenges and this would exacerbate the problem, and create another layer of bureaucracy and additional barriers to clients.
TAKE ACTION TODAY!
But, there is hope! You have a voice and we ask you to use it. Congress needs to know that cutting SNAP benefits will take food off the table for low-income families. It means seniors will be choosing between medication and food. Parents will be going to bed hungry so their kids can eat. Food pantries will be overwhelmed and unable to meet the new demand on their services. Rural grocery stores could be in peril.
We know that a piece of legislation like the Farm Bill involves compromises and competing priorities, but ensuring that Americans have the ability to put food on their tables should not be comprised.
We expect a House floor vote in early May as well as the release of the Senate Farm Bill proposal. Our work is just beginning on this vote. Sending a message today shows you care and will help lay the foundation for a strong voice from North Dakota. After all, if they don’t hear from you – they don’t know how you feel. Reach out and tell them.
Stay tuned to this work by signing up as a Hunger Advocate HERE .
Together, we can, and will end hunger.
(Blog was written by Great Plains Food Bank Ending Hunger 2.0 Director Melissa Sobolik)