If you are one of 10,000 Mission district residents eligible for food stamps, or CalFresh benefits, proposed federal budget cuts to the nutrition assistance program could soon undermine your monthly food budget.
Congress revamps the rules for the agriculture and food industry every five years, but this year has adjourned until after the election without approving a new farm bill, even though the current bill is set to expire just days from now. The bill stalled on a contentious sticking point: federal funding for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), the program commonly known as food stamps. The Senate has proposed $4.5 billion in cuts over the next decade to this social service, and the House about quadruple that amount. The large disparity between the two proposals has kept a final farm bill from the floor.
In 2009, the Mission ranked third among city districts in the amount of food supplements received from local food banks. A drop in funding may force programs like CalFresh to change their eligibility rules, possibly making it more difficult to qualify for assistance.
Food bank and SNAP advocates say the proposed funding cuts would devastate a system that is already underfunded. Recently the San Francisco Food Security Task Force wrote a letter urging Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi to reconsider cuts to the program at any level.
The California Department of Food and Agriculture supports maintaining the current level of funding. In California, that works out to about $250 per household every month.
Mission Local spoke with Teri Olle, a member of the San Francisco Food Security Task Force and associate director of policy and advocacy for San Francisco and Marin Food Banks. She estimates that under the proposed $16 billion in House cuts, 200,000 to 300,000 Californias could lose benefits.
Mission Local: Was this a routine letter to politicians for the task force, or is this the first time you have appealed with a request?
Teresa Olle: The FSTF regularly takes positions on bills and sends support letters. The FSTF weighs in on federal, state and local issues when appropriate. SNAP is absolutely critical to maintaining the hunger safety net, and those we serve suffer when the net is shredded. It’s important to remind policy makers what’s at stake.
ML: Why did you write the letter, and please summarize what it says, the main persuasive point and why you think nutrition assistance funding cuts might hurt the people you serve in San Francisco?
Olle: We wrote the letter to all three of our congressional representatives [Nancy Pelosi, Jackie Speier and Lynn Woolsey] to speak with one united voice against the proposed cuts to SNAP in the House bill. All three of our congressional reps have been extremely supportive of nutrition funding, so our letter simply emphasized the importance of the SNAP program to those whom our organizations serve. People receiving SNAP benefits are already struggling – SNAP provides a modest safeguard, and given the high cost of living in the Bay Area, even with benefits it’s difficult for those we serve to make ends meet.
Without reliable resources to buy food, low-income residents in San Francisco rely on food pantries, soup kitchens and other programs offered by our organizations. The need in our community is great even when the economy is doing well, and our organizations already strain to serve everyone. SNAP is designed to expand in hard times, which is why we see more and more people receiving the benefits – it’s a symptom of the difficult economic recovery, not a place to find “savings.” Proposing to cut the program precisely when it is needed most makes no sense, and worse, will have very real and very devastating effects for low-income Americans.
It’s important to note that about half of all households receiving SNAP have a working adult in them, and about half of all SNAP recipients are children. You can find out more about SNAP on the USDA website.
ML: In [San Francisco supervisorial] District 9, food banks and SNAP benefits are integral to keeping the neighborhood fed. How might funding cuts hurt these people? What would they do without the current level of assistance?
Olle: When benefits are not available or are more difficult to obtain, low-income people typically turn to food pantries, soup kitchens and other services that provide food. They also have to make impossible choices between food, safe housing, utilities, quality child care, necessary medical expenses. Of all of those basic needs, often food is the most elastic and so we see families eating less or skipping meals.
ML: The current farm bill is set to expire in less than 30 days. Where do you think congressional priority lies in finalizing the legislation?
Olle: It’s very unclear at this point. When Congress left for August recess, many were calling for the House bill to be sent to the floor so that the full Congress could debate it publicly. The Senate bill, by the way, was passed out of the Senate in the spring, so even if the House can pass something by Sept. 30, the bills would have to be reconciled. There are very few days left before Sept. 30.
The farm bill is a massive piece of legislation that contains not only nutrition funding (the biggest component) but also numerous programs for farmers, like crop insurance. I don’t want to oversimplify this, but historically the farm interests and the nutrition interests have worked together to come up with a bill that supports those who provide food and those who need food.
ML: How much money does San Francisco and Marin Food Banks receive from federal funding? What are the proposed cuts, and how would that reduction affect operations?
Olle: The big cuts being proposed to the bill would be felt by individuals who would otherwise receive SNAP. This affects the Food Banks because these are the same people we serve and their needs will be greater, so they will turn to us for more support. If people don’t have SNAP benefits to buy groceries, they turn to the food pantries.
We do receive federal commodities that we use for specific programs targeting seniors, and some government grants.
ML: Is this a trend to cut nutrition assistance, or is it a recent occurrence? Have food banks ever received the support they need?
Olle: There is always a fight to protect assistance programs. Some lawmakers believe that program expansion is inherently bad. What it really means is that the economy is not strong enough for lots of people – many of whom have jobs – to make ends meet for their families. Recent bipartisan committees have uniformly recommended protecting these important programs, but still some legislators keep trying to push this idea that all programs should share equally in cuts. We believe that balancing the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable is neither right nor smart.
As for the Food Banks, most of our support comes from private sources – individuals, philanthropic foundations and corporations. Many have stepped up during the recession, enabling us to serve the greater need. But the need is huge – one in five people in San Francisco face the risk of hunger – and assistance programs that are designed to expand to meet that need are critical to low-income people.
ML: Have you received a formal reply from any of the lawmakers you wrote?
Olle: Yes. We are in regular contact with our legislators.
ML: What are some issues specific to hunger and food insecurity in San Francisco that you regularly must address and are unique to the area?
Olle: Children, seniors, unemployed and low-wage workers make up the majority of those struggling with hunger. In fact, only 17 percent of those receiving food through the Food Bank network are homeless.
At the Food Banks, we hear many stories about why people find themselves seeking food assistance. Some lost their jobs due to the economy or long-term illness. Others are working full-time at a low-wage job, trying to support a family in a city where the cost of living is one of the highest in the country. Retired seniors often have a hard time getting by on Social Security alone. Since rent, electric bills and medicine are non-negotiable costs for many people, the place where they make cuts in the household budget is groceries.
San Francisco and Marin Food Banks currently operates 42 food pantries in the Mission District. We serve 5,298 families per week in the Mission. These pantries include Healthy Children Pantries operating in schools, pantries operated in low-income housing, open-enrollment pantries, pantries in SROs and brown bag senior programs.