Food Stamps

Politicians pushing shopping carts down supermarket aisles are not an ordinary sight. But some in public office have been doing just that in accepting a weeklong challenge to experience the difficulties of living on a food stamp allowance of barely more than one dollar per meal. This year Congress must make its five-year reauthorization of the farm bill, and food stamps are part of it. Oregons Governor Theodore Kulongoski accepted the challenge and found, during a week of living on what food stamps could buy, that he went to bed earlier because he was more tired at the end of the day. Nor is he the only one to find that benefits at their present levels do not provide enough food to stave off weariness and provide adequate nutrition. The reason lies partly in the programs inadequate funding, which is largely a consequence of benefit cuts imposed by the 1996 welfare law. Reautho-rization now offers Congress the chance to remedy that unacceptable situation. That a number of members of Congress have themselves accepted the food stamp challenge has heightened public awareness.

The Department of Agriculture uses its Thrifty Food Plan to determine how much money a low-income household needs for a nutritious diet. But as anti-hunger advocates point out, the dollar amount called for by this plan is higher than the average food stamp benefit. In reality many families run out before the end of the month. Low-income shoppers, moreover, have little choice but to buy calorie-dense foods that assuage hunger but can lead to obesity. The more nutritious foods tend to be more expensive. The situation is all the more worrisome because over half of food stamp recipients are children.

Only 60 percent of those eligible for food stamps receive them. The reason lies partly in the complex application process, which can be daunting, especially for people of limited education. Lack of outreach help is also part of the reason for the low enrollment. Another barrier to eligibility is the resources test. Resources (cash on hand, checking and savings accounts, for example) may not exceed $2,000, a limit that has remained unchanged for 21 years, with no adjustment for inflation. Advocates point out that the current limit is so low that households are practically forced into impoverishment before they can become eligible for food stamps. Reauthorization should include raising the resource limit.

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Another needed change concerns legal immigrants, who are ineligible because of a mandatory five-year wait before they can apply. Legal immigrants should be given the same access to the program as U.S. citizens. Undocumented immigrants are never eligible, but their citizen children are. Because of language problems, however, and understandable fears of arrest and deportation, undocumented parents may be reluctant to apply for their children.

The farm bills nutrition title includes the Commodity Supplemental Food Program. The administrations 2008 budget calls for its elimination, which would end nutritional assistance for almost half a million seniors and thousands of low-income women and children. The program provides them with monthly food boxes of nutrient-rich foods like tuna fish and canned fruits and vegetables. According to the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a food package costs the government less than $20 per participant.

One positive step is a bill introduced by Jim McGovern (Democrat of Massachusetts) and Jo Ann Emerson (Republican of Missouri), co-chairs of the House Hunger Caucus, both of whom accepted the one-week food stamp challenge. Their bill, the Feeding Americas Family Act, co-sponsored by over 80 other members of Congress, would add $4 billion to the food stamp budget and thereby increase benefit levels. It would also lift the absurdly low minimum food stamp allowance of $10 a month, set in 1977 and never indexed for inflation, to $32 a monthan amount that could prompt a single adult living alone to make the effort to apply. Moreover, it would allow higher deductions for child care expenses. Not least, it would allow former felony drug offenders, who are currently ineligible, to receive food stamp benefits, surely a needed change that would help them in the difficult transition from prison back to their communities. Finally, it also proposes to alter restrictive asset rules by excluding a familys savings for education and retirement funds.

Reauthorization of the farm bill, with positive legislation of this kind folded in, offers a chance to reshape what the U.S. bishops conference has called our broken agricultural policies. The food stamp program represents a part of those policies that is important if the goal is to be reached of reducing the number of people35 millionwho are estimated to be food insecure. In a country as rich as the United States, no one should have to go hungry or suffer from malnutrition.

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