Don’t Cut One Hunger Program to Pay for Another

Congress Should Pass Child Nutrition Legislation Without Cutting Food Stamps

Melissa Boteach argues that Congress should find a different way to pay for the new child nutrition bill.

House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), center, and others leave a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, where he discussed his budget blueprint. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), center, and others leave a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, where he discussed his budget blueprint. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

See also: Fighting Fat at 15 by Joy Moses

Canned vegetables instead of fresh produce. White bread instead of multigrain. Foods that are high calorie and high fat but filling and cheap. That’s what I ate the week I took the “Food Stamp Challenge” in September 2007.

Along with members of Congress and faith leaders across the country I accepted this challenge to live on the average food stamp benefit for one week, which at the time was just $1 per meal. In just that short time I put on weight from consuming high-sodium, high-calorie foods, and I felt my energy lag at work because I wasn’t getting the proper nutrition I needed to function.

That week I learned two lessons I will never forget: 1) food stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) are a critical lifeline for millions of families who fall on hard times; 2) increasing the benefit amount is essential to tackling this country’s hunger and obesity epidemics.

Last month, the Senate passed a bill that aims to reduce hunger and obesity. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act will reauthorize the nation’s child nutrition programs such as School Breakfast, School Lunch, summer feeding, and the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program for pregnant women, infants, and children. There is much to like about this bill, which improves the nutritional quality of school meals and invests in strategies to enhance access to healthy foods.

Among reasons worth fighting for its passage:

  • The bill expands the afterschool meal program for low-income kids so that all 50 states can participate.
  • The bill reduces paperwork and administrative burdens, which makes it easier for eligible kids to access child nutrition programs.
  • The bill enables school and out-of-school time programs to serve healthier meals by boosting reimbursement rates.
  • The bill gives the secretary of agriculture authority to establish national nutrition standards for foods sold on school campuses throughout the school day, directly tackling childhood obesity.

Unfortunately (and ironically), the legislation proposes to pay for these improvements with $2.2 billion in cuts to improvements made to food stamp benefits in the Recovery Act. These benefits were intended to gradually phase out as the rising price of food slowly eroded the value of the boost provided to families each month, sparing them an abrupt reduction. This cut would abruptly reduce benefits in November 2013, causing a family of four to lose about $59 every month from their food budget.

Proponents of using the SNAP money allocated in the Recovery Act to pay for the child nutrition bill generally argue that because food costs are rising more gradually than anticipated, families are getting the increased benefit longer than the act intended.

This argument forgets the importance of preventing hard-up families from suddenly losing badly needed help. Before the Recovery Act increased SNAP benefits by approximately 13.6 percent, families often ran out of food toward the end of the month. I learned during my week of living on a $21 food stamp benefit that families often cope by resorting to high-calorie, low-cost foods to stop the hunger pangs, which contributes to this country’s obesity epidemic.

Hunger and obesity are not mutually exclusive phenomena. Unemployment is hovering around 10 percent, one in three children is suffering from obesity, and approximately one in four children is living in a household struggling against hunger. We should be applauding Congress’s foresight of investing in SNAP benefits, not looking to justify cuts on a food inflation technicality.

The child nutrition debate is also happening just as Congress is heading toward a historic tax debate, which offers an important juxtaposition. Some in Congress believe we should extend Bush-era tax cuts for people making more than $250,000 a year, which would exclusively benefit the top 2 percent of earners at a cost of $860 billion over the next 10 years. This policy, however, ranked dead last among other alternatives in spurring economic growth, in part because the wealthy generally save the money rather than spending it in the economy.

Food stamps, on the other hand, help vulnerable children whose families have been swallowed up in this recession, and they are the number one policy option to spur economic recovery because the benefits are immediately spent in local economies. The SNAP cuts under consideration would not go into effect until 2013, but projections of a slow labor market recovery make the case for allowing these benefits to phase out slowly as intended. This is a very clear choice between two vastly different priorities, and that choice should be clear as the debate moves forward. And of course the cost of preventing the abrupt loss of food stamps is a tiny fraction of the cost of extending tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent.

Reauthorizing the child nutrition programs is a key legislative priority that must be accomplished this year if we are to make a dent in the president’s complementary goals of ending child hunger by 2015 and ending child obesity within a generation. But we will not accomplish those goals by taking money from one nutrition program to pay for another. SNAP and the School Lunch program serve approximately the same number of children. About 19 million children receive free and reduced price lunch in school, and approximately half of the SNAP program’s 40 million participants are children. SNAP helps infants and toddlers, who get relatively little help from the child nutrition bill, and who urgently need proper nutrition for healthy brain development.

The ball is now in the House of Representatives’ court. The House Education and Labor Committee has marked up an impressive child nutrition bill that invests $8 billion over the next 10 years, and it makes a significant down payment on the president’s goals of ending child hunger and obesity. It goes even further than the Senate bill in improving access and participation to the programs. The House should add these needed improvements and it should find acceptable ways to pay for the bill.

That issue must be resolved soon. In addition to exacting high moral costs, hunger costs the United States approximately $126 billion every year in increased health care expenditures and reduced productivity and educational performance. Eight billion dollars over 10 years seems like a small price to pay in comparison to the costs of inaction.

Melissa Boteach is the Campaign Manager of Half in Ten.

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Melissa Boteach

Senior Vice President, Poverty to Prosperity Program