Working for Maine’s statewide food bank, I get a front-row seat to see the important role federally funded food assistance programs play in Mainers’ lives.
I recently met a mother named Orianna. She receives Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits to help her afford enough nutritious food for herself, her son and her husband, who suffers from a debilitating medical condition. When her family receives SNAP, everything else becomes a bit easier — she can use the income from her job as a gas station cashier to pay the rent and other bills, and she knows her son will get the food he needs to learn and grow. But there have been times when her family lost access to SNAP, making their struggles harder.
What you come to realize quickly, when you talk with people like Orianna who receive help from SNAP, is that food is the foundation of a stable and healthy life.
I see how hard it is for Maine families to put food on the table. While most people I meet are working, they earn too little to afford the nutritious food they need. Many others have had to cut back on work to care for a sick family member. For those who are just scraping by despite working hard, an unforeseen challenge such as a medical condition, car repair or job loss can be enough to set them on the path to even deeper poverty.
Food pantries make a difference in our communities, but they can’t do it alone. Many of the people who walk through our doors also use SNAP to afford nutritious foods at the grocery store. All told, SNAP keeps more than 8 million people across the country out of poverty and puts them on the path to a better life.
The average SNAP benefit per person per meal in Maine is modest — about $1.25. This is not enough to fully provide for people’s nutritional needs (this is why we see so many SNAP recipients at local food pantries when their benefits have run out), but it acts as a critical support for putting food on the table.
Congress soon will release a budget blueprint that will set the stage for renewing many programs, including SNAP. If Congress adopts proposals from the president’s budget, it would have devastating consequences for our country’s most vulnerable residents. Millions of working families, children, senior citizens and veterans would be left unable to pay for groceries and faced with the possibility of sliding further into poverty.
Historically, SNAP benefits have been financed with federal funds to ensure that regional disparities in hunger, poverty and resources are properly addressed. This means that low-income households have access to adequate food no matter where they live. The president’s budget would end this longstanding and successful approach by forcing states to cover 10 percent of SNAP benefit costs beginning in 2020, and increasing that share to 25 percent by 2023.
Maine would be on the hook for approximately $64 million annually — a total of $444 million in additional costs over the next 10 years. There is no way Maine would be able to cover this cost. The only recourse would be to cut benefits and remove people from the rolls. This would be devastating for Maine people who rely on SNAP, our economy and our state budget.
As the number of Mainers unable to pay for food and other basic needs increases as a result of these cuts, local businesses would see decreasing grocery sales. Meanwhile, demand would increase at community food pantries throughout the state — many of which already struggle to meet current needs. Despite our best efforts, the Good Shepherd Food Bank and our partners could never make up the difference.
I believe children like Orianna’s shouldn’t have to go to school hungry. Neither should older Mainers be forced to make difficult choices between food and medicine. Four out of 10 SNAP participants in Maine have household members who are elderly or have disabilities and six out of 10 have children in the home. Investing in these families, in the form of food assistance, is an investment in the health and prosperity of our entire state.
Whether or not you spend time at a food pantry, we all have a part to play in lifting up our community. We at Good Shepherd Food Bank urge our leaders to protect SNAP — and the millions of Americans who use the program to feed their families.
I hope you’ll join us.
Kristen Miale is president of the Good Shepherd Food Bank.