What's the Strongest Defense Against Hunger?

Chuck Sheketoff

When the Great Recession struck, many Oregon families suddenly found themselves unable to put enough food on the table. And yet food insecurity rates in Oregon remained relatively unchanged.

Which do you think was primarily responsible for holding the line on food insecurity, the non-profit sector or the public sector?

The answer is not even close. A public structure, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program), is the most important line of defense against hunger in Oregon, especially in times of crisis.

Oregonians can be proud of having one of the most effective food bank networks in the country. Supported by generous Oregonians, the Oregon Food Bank Network performs a vital service in communities across our state. For the families who seek help from their local food pantry, these institutions can be the difference between having a meal and going hungry.

It was SNAP, however, that kept Oregon’s rate of hunger from skyrocketing during the recession.

Consider the capacity of SNAP and the Oregon Food Bank Network to respond during recessions. In the 2002-03 fiscal year, just after the previous recession, SNAP in Oregon was nine times larger in dollar terms than Oregon Food Bank spending. By fiscal year 2009-10, following the official end of the Great Recession, SNAP dollars flowing into Oregon were 25 times larger than Oregon Food Bank expenditures.

Over that time span, after adjusting for inflation, SNAP assistance increased 135 percent, while Oregon Food Bank spending declined 17 percent.

The numbers tell the story: even with a great food pantry system under the Oregon Food Bank Network, public structures remain far-and-away the most important line of defense against hunger and food insecurity.

Sadly, efforts by U.S. House Republicans would damage those structures. Last month the House Agriculture Committee passed a Farm Bill that cuts about $21 billion from SNAP over the next decade. The full House is expected to take up the bill next week.

In effect, the bill would deny food assistance for nearly 2 million low-income people, mostly low-wage working families with children and low-income seniors. In addition, hundreds of thousands of low-income children would lose free lunch at school. And some working poor would lose SNAP because they own a modest car, even if they need it to commute their jobs.

It’s important to keep in mind that the proposed cuts to SNAP come on top of a cut already scheduled to take effect in November. That’s when a temporary increase to SNAP benefits enacted as part of the 2009 law to stimulate the economy is set to expire. A family of three, for example, will have about $20 to $25 less to spend on food each month starting this fall if Congress fails to extend that temporary economic recovery program.

Should the House Republicans’ cuts to SNAP come to pass, I’m confident that the Oregon Food Bank Network will do its best to feed Oregonians struggling to put food on the table.

But let’s not indulge in wishful thinking that Oregonians’ generosity can offset the Farm Bill cuts. The private non-profit sector cannot substitute for our public structures when it comes to addressing food insecurity and hunger.

While Oregonians who want to end to hunger and food insecurity should continue to support the Oregon Food Bank Network, they must demand that Congress and the President protect SNAP, as well.

Oregon Center for Public PolicyChuck Sheketoff is the executive director of the Oregon Center for Public Policy. You can sign up to receive email notification of OCPP materials at www.ocpp.org.

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