One in four Maine children is food insecure, meaning that one quarter of our babies, toddlers and schoolchildren can’t count on getting enough to eat every day. Many of them have working parents (or a parent) whose wages, often from two jobs, are simply not enough to feed their family properly. In a country producing as much food as ours, no one, much less a child, should have to worry about whether they will have enough to eat.
On Nov. 1, Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits, otherwise known as food stamps, were cut by 5 percent due to the expiration of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The current average SNAP benefit in Maine is less than $4 a day per person now. When was the last time you tried to feed your family three nutritious meals a day on a budget of four dollars per person?
As if that were not enough, current discussions in Washington propose even greater cuts. A bill recently passed by the House would strip $39 billion from SNAP. While it’s true that total SNAP costs have increased significantly over the past seven years, this has happened in direct response to increased unemployment across America. Fewer good jobs mean increased hunger. It’s that simple.
Volunteer organizations are doing their best to fill this critical need. In 2013, Good Shepherd Food Bank, Maine’s largest hunger-relief organization, distributed a record of more than 14 million pounds of food through its network of 600 partner food pantries, meal sites and other organizations. It achieved this milestone thanks to generous individual and corporate donations of food, money and time. Yet, despite these efforts, tens of thousands of Mainers are still going hungry every single day.
Sometimes hunger is a temporary situation, the result of an unexpected layoff or temporary health crisis. However, for people unable to find permanent work, the disabled and the elderly, hunger can be a long-lasting challenge. Charitable efforts help meet their needs in part, but cannot solve the larger problem of hunger.
Eliminating hunger requires a bigger solution: an improved economy with more jobs that provide stable income to feed families and pay for other essentials like heat in the winter. These jobs require an educated workforce. Think again about the one in four children in Maine who live with food insecurity. While national studies clearly show that hungry children have trouble concentrating and have poor academic performance, teachers in every Maine school will confirm that children who are hungry don’t do as well in school as those who have had enough to eat. Furthermore, hungry kids get sick more often and suffer developmentally.
During the school year, school lunch and breakfast programs help alleviate childhood hunger, as do charitable feeding programs like the Food Bank’s BackPack Program and school food pantries. Though critical, these programs are not a complete solution for families that struggle with hunger for years on end. And, because hunger affects their ability to succeed in school, many kids will be trapped in a cycle of poverty.
As dire as the hunger situation is here in Maine and around the country, it’s getting worse.
No matter how you feel about public assistance programs, the fact remains that cuts to the SNAP program will hurt innocent, hungry kids — often the children of the working poor.
The recent reduction in SNAP benefits will harm families in genuine need, but if the substantial cuts being discussed in Washington come to pass, these families will suffer even more. As a nation we need to do more, not less, to eliminate hunger. We need to do it not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s in our collective best interest to help every person live a better, healthier and more productive life. Our economy depends on it. And it’s what we, as Americans, stand for.
What can you do? Learn more about hunger here in Maine and across the country. Contact our congressional representatives in Washington and urge them to continue their support for SNAP and other anti-hunger programs. And finally, give food, time, talent or money to the organizations right here in Maine that are working hard everyday to make sure no one, and especially no child, goes to bed hungry.
David Pierson is president and chair of the Good Shepherd Food Bank board of directors.