Why We Shouldn't Cut Food Stamps to Pay for School Lunch

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In the dying days of this Congress, food activists face an awful choice: Should we support the increased funding of children's school lunches, even if it means taking money from a family's food stamps? That is what's on the table in a version of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Bill passed by the Senate, in which an improved school meal program will be paid for by cutting back $2 billion in funding for food stamps in 2013.

No one disputes that poor children need to be better fed, but government food stamp entitlements are the last tatters of a safety net for many millions of people. Evidence? Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that 50.2 million Americans were food insecure in 2009, a mere 1 million more than the year before. Although that's still one in six people, the figure was a victory. Given the soaring rates of poverty and unemployment in 2009, there could have been considerably more food insecure people.

Cutting the food stamp program will hurt women more than men. Look at who goes hungry in the U.S.: Over a third of all single-female-headed households with children are food insecure.

When the recession started, over 10 million more people were added to the ranks of the food insecure: The number jumped from 37 million in 2007 to 49 million in 2008. One of the reasons America didn't see another 10 million food insecure people in 2009 was that the stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, boosted the amount of money that poor households received in food stamps.

The food stamp program is officially called SNAP—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In March 2009 the average monthly SNAP benefit per recipient was $115. After the stimulus money began to flow in April 2009, it rose to between $133 and $134 (PDF). This may sound paltry, but for households on the poverty line, it's vital. A food secure household spends $200 a month on food for each household member. A food insecure household spends on average $55 less than that per person per month. In helping to bridge that gap, the food stamp boost made an immense difference. And it was an example of stimulus funding that was universally acclaimed—it led directly to higher productivity, jobs, and community multiplier effects. (Every dollar spent on food stamps leads to $1.73 in economic growth, compared to, say, $0.32 for making the Bush-era income tax cuts permanent.)

Today, the poorest Americans are being threatened with a one-two punch. First, congress has failed to extend unemployment benefits for the 99ers—those who have run out of the 99 weeks of unemployment benefits, meaning that there are going to be many more families depending on food stamps in the future. Yet it is precisely these entitlements that the Senate has put on the block. Although many groups and large parts of the food industry think it's worth pushing for the Child Nutrition Bill this way, a few groups, such as the Food Research and Action Center, think it's short-sighted to let congress get away with robbing families' entitlements to feed their children. FRAC is right.

We need to expand both SNAP and school lunch programs. That means rejecting the Sophie's Choice between families and children. Behind the logic of paying for school lunches with food stamp funding is an assumption that, if poor families are sinking, "save women and children first." The trouble is that cutting the food stamp program will hurt women more than men. Look at who goes hungry in the U.S.: over a third of all single-female-headed households who have children are food insecure. No other household demographic is as likely to be going hungry. So, cut SNAP and who gets hurt? America's poorest women.

There's another problem with wanting to fund school lunches with food stamp money, and that's the notion that hunger is a solitary phenomenon. It isn't. It's something for which the entire country pays. Three years ago, a team of researchers tried to calculate the social burden of hunger. Using some conservative assumptions, they totted up the economic footprint of food insecurity, tabulating everything from lower school performance and absenteeism to depression to an expensive national infrastructure of food banks and soup kitchens. The cost? A minimum of $90 billion annually.

A national school lunch program is a bargain. But paying for it by cutting back on family food entitlements is a false economy.

The entire country suffers when children are hungry and deprived of basic nutrition. Food insecure families' budgets can't stretch to meet basic nutrition needs for everyone in the household—even after developing some very sophisticated shopping and cooking routines for a "Thrifty Food Plan" (PDF), food economists and nutritionists couldn't meet the recommended daily allowance of potassium and vitamin E. We also know that a shortage of basic nutrients hurts children swiftly, and long into the future. Malnourished children do poorly at school and are more likely to be absent or end up held back, or to drop out altogether. In 2005, the cost estimate for this—conservatively calculated in terms of education resources spent and productivity lost—was $9.2 billion in a single year. The cost of funding the Senate's Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act for 10 years: $4.5 billion.

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Raj Patel is a British-born American writer, activist, and academic. He has worked for the World Bank and WTO and been tear-gassed on four continents protesting against them. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved and The Value of Nothing. More

Raj Patel is a British-born American writer, activist, and academic. He has worked for the World Bank and WTO and been tear-gassed on four continents protesting against them. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved and The Value of Nothing. He’s currently a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for African Studies, an Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a fellow at The Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First. He is currently an IATP Food and Community Fellow. He has testified about the causes of the global food crisis to the US House Financial Services Committee and is an Advisor to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.
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