June 19, 2018
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Slashing food stamps would shift costs, not save

Chris Seward | MCT
Chris Seward | MCT
A student selects an apple as he goes through the line during lunch at East Cary Middle School in Cary, N.C., recently.

As children across Maine start a new school year, a collaborative of nonprofit groups and schools in eight southern midcoast communities have the right idea.

The Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program, the Good Shepherd Food Bank and the schools are teaming up to launch the “Backpack Program.”

At the end of each school week, the Backpack Program will send 5 to 6 pounds of nutritious food home with elementary school students in need. The idea is to extend the benefits of the National School Lunch Program — which, during the schoolday, offers low-income students free and reduced-price meals that meet nutritional standards — through the weekend when the school cafeteria is shut down.

Unfortunately, the Backpack Program and initiatives like it will be in greater demand if Republicans in Congress have their way and are able to slash funding for food stamps.

Some 46 percent of Maine public school students last year qualified for free or reduced-price lunches, according to the state Department of Education. That means nearly half of the state’s public school students come from families who have difficulty paying for nutritious food.

That’s why any effort to stretch the value of the school lunch program, which can be the only source of nutritious food for too many children, is wise and could yield a valuable academic return on investment.

Over the summer, some nonprofit groups and school districts step in to stretch the school lunch program’s value by participating in the federally funded Summer Food Service Program.

In Maine, the program is growing and feeding more children. The number of sites where children can pick up a free summer meal grew to 307 this summer, up from 242 in 2012. This summer was the first that all of Maine’s 16 counties had Summer Food Service Program sites. But the program reaches only a sliver of those whose families can’t afford nutritious meals: The Food Research and Action Center estimates just 17.5 percent of Maine children who qualified for free and reduced-price lunches during the school year received the summer meals they were eligible for in 2012.

The Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program’s initiative is an effort to stretch the value of the school lunch program during the school year.

Just as school is returning to session and the Backpack Program is getting underway, Congress is also set to return to Washington. On its agenda is a showdown over the federal budget that could leave even more Americans hungry. The showdown hinges in part on funding for food stamps, known formally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, an item on which the Senate’s Democratic majority and the House’s Republican majority can’t agree.

About 15 percent of Americans — about 47 million — rely on food stamps, and Republicans in Congress are intent on making major cuts to the program and imposing eligibility requirements such as drug tests. A Republican-backed House bill in June proposed more than $20 billion in food stamp cuts, which would eliminate benefits for 2 million people and put school meals at risk for 210,000 low-income children.

The bill failed when Democrats protested the reductions, and some Republicans said the cuts didn’t go far enough.

Food stamp beneficiaries already are bracing for cuts in November, when a temporary boost to the program through the 2009 economic stimulus bill expires. That change will amount to a $29-a-month benefit cut for a family of three, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The food stamp program currently provides about $133 per recipient each month, which works out to less than $1.50 a meal.

In Maine, about 250,000 people received food stamps during fiscal year 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That number had grown 46.1 percent since 2008 — the result of a weak economy and a food stamp program change that has made more eligible for assistance.

As Maine food stamp recipients receive leaner benefits starting in November — and more people could lose benefits altogether depending on how Congress resolves its standoff over funding for agriculture programs — it doesn’t mean there’s any less demand for the help.

It just means organizations such as the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program and the Good Shepherd Food Bank will see a spike in demand for their services.

It’s unfortunate so many Americans rely on food stamps to get by, and we believe the program needs a major rule change: restrictions that would bar food stamp recipients from using their benefits to purchase junk food and sugary soft drinks.

But while congressional Republicans say they’re interested in cutting spending and reducing dependence, they’re really just advocating for a move that would shift costs to local governments and charities.

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