A volunteer grabs bags of food for drive-thru service at the Dover-Foxcroft Area Food Cupboard in May. Credit: Kevin Bennett / Maine Public

The BDN Editorial Board operates independently from the newsroom, and does not set policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

Record numbers of Americans are utilizing food banks — many for the first time — to get enough food to eat during the coronavirus pandemic.

Food banks and the farmers, processors and stores that donate food to them are doing vital work as 26 million Americans report they can’t afford enough food to eat.

However, there’s a more direct and efficient way to help low-income Americans get food — give them the money to buy it.

That’s what SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, does. However, SNAP benefits are far too small to sustain Americans and American families that are struggling to afford enough food to eat.

In 2020, the average SNAP benefit per person was about $125 per month, which works out to about $1.39 per person per meal, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In 2021, SNAP benefits will increase by 5.3 percent.

During the pandemic, states have been given more flexibility to temporarily provide additional emergency benefits, including increasing SNAP benefits to make up for lost school meals for children.

These measures were helpful, but only a start to making food more readily available to the million of Americans who need it. In the meantime, food pantries are stepping up to fill holes in our safety net.

In Maine, the Good Shepherd Food Bank has seen demand increase by about 25 percent since June. Feeding America, the nation’s largest anti-hunger organization, has seen a 60 percent average increase in food bank users during the pandemic and roughly 4 in 10 are first-timers.

The Associated Press analyzed data from 181 food banks in Feeding America’s network. The food banks distributed nearly 57 percent more food in the third quarter of this year, compared with the same period in 2019.

Feeding America estimates those facing hunger will swell to 1 in 6 people, from 35 million in 2019 to more than 50 million by this year’s end, the AP reported.

For all its good work, Feeding America and its network of foodbanks, and the thousands of other food pantries throughout the U.S. are facing the herculean task of filling gaps in the country’s broken hunger prevention program.

SNAP delivers roughly nine times more food to the American people than the entire Feeding America network. The problem is that it is inefficient.

SNAP is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The department buys millions of pounds of food from American farmers and producers to help them weather downturns that lower demand for their products. During the pandemic, for example, purchases from restaurants and school departments have dropped substantially.

The department recently started a new program where producers are given USDA contracts to provide fresh food to food banks. While the program is well intentioned, to get that food to hungry Americans, food banks often have to build and manage expensive storage and delivery systems. In addition, the food that the USDA has purchased doesn’t necessarily meet customer demand. For example, one Texas milk processor has found takers for only 10 percent of the milk it must donate in order to keep its $137 million USDA contract.

It would be far better to simply give SNAP recipients enough money to buy the food they need from grocery stores, farmers markets and other local vendors. The food would get to the stores and markets through existing distribution channels and less food would be wasted as hungry Americans could buy what they typically eat rather. The money they spend would be circulated through the local economy, providing additional economic benefits to the community.

By all means, if you can, donate money to your local food bank or statewide organizations like Good Shepherd Food Bank so they can continue to feed Maine’s hungry.

In the longer term, however, America needs to adopt a more efficient, direct and personalized way to help low-income people get food, by giving them the money to buy it.

The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...