The Hunger Cliff

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Deep cuts in the safety net have enabled a man-made disaster of food insecurity. 

Four years after the recession official ended, hunger in America is reaching a new level of crisis. With millions of Americans stuck in poverty and Congress shredding every bit of the safety net they can find, the hunger cliff threatens bring food insecurity to its highest level in generations.

The hunger cliff has a few parts to it. To begin with, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or food stamps, is set to lose $5 billion from its annual budget beginning today. The cut comes as the last of Obama’s 2009 stimulus expires and SNAP begins to return to pre-recession capacity. The problem is hunger in America is nowhere near what it was before the crisis. Food stamp recipients have been increasing every year since 2007, and have nearly doubled since the recession began.

And $5 billion is a big deal for a program that’s been struggling with skyrocketing need. Today’s cutback is equal to the amount of food private charities and food banks distribute nationwide over the course of a year, says Joel Berg, executive director of the New York Coalition Against Hunger. In an interview with Chris Hayes, Berg says it’s as if all private charity didn’t exist for an entire year.

Even before the cuts took effect, SNAP was woefully underfunded. The average recipient gets $133 per month, or about $1.50 for each meal. According to Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks, 90 percent of SNAP benefits are redeemed by the third week of each month, and more than half of recipients rely on food banks to supplement benefits for at least six months out of the year.

As bad as all this is, today’s cuts are not the first part of the hunger cliff to take effect. As more and more Americans are turning to food pantries and hunger programs, these initiatives have already been hit hard this year by the sequester. Automatic cuts this past March kicked more than half a million women and children out of the WIC nutrition program while Meals on Wheels was forced to make 19 million fewer deliveries. Meanwhile, the sequester slashed $2.4 million in federal subsidies to food banks, a source more than 30 million Americans rely on.

And it gets worse. Also this week, a conference committee met for the first time to try to reconcile House and Senate versions of this year’s Farm Bill—an umbrella of food and agriculture policy that includes food stamps. Neither version appears to take America’s hunger crisis very seriously: while Democrats propose to cut food stamps by $4.1 billion over the next decade—remember, that’s not so far from the sum total of annual private donations nationwide—Republicans in the House demand nearly $40 billion in cuts, effectively kicking millions of Americans out of the program. It’s hard to say how much this year’s bill will slash food stamps, but it’ll probably be pretty big. This is potentially the most devastating part of the hunger cliff, threatening to throw millions of Americans into food insecurity.

And the timing couldn’t be worse, NYC Food Bank President Margarette Purvis told Hayes: “You know, the fourth week of the month that they’ve decided to do this, it is for Thanksgiving. It is for Hanukkah. It makes absolutely no sense.”

None of this is good news but there are plenty of things you can do about it. Food Bank NYC recommends contacting Congress and provides some critical talking points. And for the more action-oriented, there are plenty of other ways to combat hunger in your community, from starting a food rescue program to serving free community meals to volunteering at your local food bank.

For more details on the hunger cliff, check out Food Bank NYC’s online guide and this report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Image by the USDA, licensed under Creative Commons.

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