Groups promote awareness about hunger
BY TY JOHNSON THE BROWNSVILLE HERALD | Posted: Thursday, July 25, 2013 10:40 pm
At first glance, the United States’ issues with hunger and obesity appear to be at different ends of the spectrum, but more than 40 people gathered Thursday in Brownsville learned that government policy might be to blame for the nation’s 50 million hungry citizens as well as its 23.5 million overweight children and teenagers.
Just hours earlier, the Texas Food Bank Network warned that the problem appears poised to worsen as Congress considers more funding cuts to the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program on top of benefits already set to expire this November.
Thursday’s event at Paredes Reception Hall, hosted by Proyecto Juan Diego, was not intended to coincide with TFBN’s unveiling of its 100-day countdown clock that ticks down the number of days until SNAP benefits will decrease by about $20 monthly per household, but Sister Phylis Peters said the upcoming reduction in benefits correlates directly with the message contained in “A Place at the Table,” the film her organization screened.
The documentary showed how an increased emphasis on farm subsidies without focusing on feeding the hungry in past decades had more than doubled the number of Americans going hungry dating back to the administration of former President Ronald Reagan in 1980.
As the government decreased its involvement in feeding the hungry, food banks — many of them faith-based — had to step in to fill the void. The number of food banks in the country grew from about 200 in 1980 to more than 40,000 today, the film said.
“We cut all these things,” Peters said. “We don’t learn from our past.”
The film displays case studies where those receiving public assistance are forced to stretch limited funds to feed their families and how minimum income requirements mean that some who work full time are just as bad off, or worse, than when they were unemployed.
Worse, Peters said, is the fact that subsidies make fresh fruits and vegetables more costly than processed foods, leading to poor nutrition, diabetes and obesity.
“The poor know what they’re eating,” she said. “But they don’t have a choice.”
She said she would like to challenge grocery stores to flip their pricing, making fresh, nutritious options more affordable, claiming that the stores would increase their customers and the community would become healthier.
She said she hopes more innovative ideas like that will emerge from the committees formed during the meeting, which invited those gathered to sign up to serve on two boards focusing respectively on wage issues and food insecurity.
Linking nationwide with 32 other organizations showing the film will allow for best practices to be passed around, Peters said, adding she hopes it will solve some of the food insecurity issues nationwide. But, Michael Seifert with the Equal Voice Network said the problem lies with the priorities of politicians in Washington.
“For me, the relevant issue is the border surge,” Seifert said, noting that Congress members were willing to spend billions on drones and border security, while shying away from hunger issues. “You say two words about food insecurity and they run for the woods.”
That scenario seems to be playing out in Washington this year, too, as TFBN Chief Executive Officer Celia Cole explained.
“Opinions are divided about what’s going to happen next,” she said, noting that her staff members visited federal lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in the nation’s capital this month. “It depends on who you talk to.”
The U.S. House of Representatives removed SNAP from its version of this year’s Farm Bill, which historically has packaged subsidies and nutrition assistance together, she said, although it’s not clear if the Senate’s version will be taken up instead.
The Senate version contains a $4 billion funding cut to SNAP, a far cry from the contentious $20 billion reduction the House bill proposed, leading to that SNAP portion being removed to move forward the subsidies portion of the bill.
“What happened is the House turned around and they were under intense pressure from the (agriculture) lobby,” Cole said. “So they said, ‘We’re going to pass the Farm Bill but take the nutritional part out of it.’”
The House could take up the version that the Senate already passed, which includes both nutrition and subsidies, but it’s not certain.
Compromise between the Senate’s $4 billion cut and the House’s $20 billion cut also is possible — perhaps an $8 billion to $12 billion reduction.
“All of that’s up in the air,” Cole said.
Meanwhile, a congressional stimulus agreed upon in 2009 is ticking toward its end, perhaps leading to a decrease in monthly benefits.
The stimulus, an increase in monthly benefits to help low-income people during the economic recession, was set to be naturally phased out as inflation rose, but in 2010 Congress decided to simply eliminate the program in November 2013.
“As far as we know there hasn’t been any advance warning,” Cole said, adding that while the abrupt loss of $25 monthly might not seem like a lot to higher-income individuals, it will have a serious effect on those most vulnerable. “That’s a lot. It’s not something they’re really prepared for. We’re concerned about that and the potential impact it can have.”
That’s why the TFBN is promoting its countdown clock, which shows the time left before the cut happens.
That knowledge, like the film Peters screened, is intended to inspire citizens to get involved and demand a halt to social program cuts, Cole said.
“We’re hoping that other people will be outraged and there will be a public outcry,” she said, noting that she hopes people will call their congressional representatives to stop the spending cuts before it’s too late.
Peters said she, too, hopes those who have the most at stake in the discussion — like those who live in the colonias her organization focuses on — will speak out, too, and not rely on others to make their case for them.
“I just think we have to make people aware,” she said. “We need to make sure they know they need to speak up, too, not just us.”