WASHINGTON -- A staggering 18 percent of Americans surveyed last month said there have been times over the past year when they could not afford to put food on the table, recent Gallup data shows. This number is slightly lower than it was in September 2009, despite persistently high unemployment levels and record participation in the food stamp program.
Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, said in a press conference on Tuesday that the declining hunger numbers are a testament to the effectiveness of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which boosted monthly benefits for recipients about 13.6 percent in April 2009.
"By early 2009, the rate of people answering yes [to the question of food hardship] had jumped up to 19 or 20 percent," he said. "Then, even as unemployment going up, there was a decline in yes answers to this question beginning in the spring of 2009, and it was pretty obvious that one key cause of this was the increase in SNAP or food stamp benefits that Congress passed as part of the Economic Recovery Act."
Participation in the food stamp program is at an all-time high, currently reaching one in eight Americans. But Congress is considering ending the temporary boost in SNAP benefits to pay for new child nutrition programs like school lunch reimbursement, perhaps as early as November 2013, which would take $59 a month out of the food budget of low-income families.
Mariana Chilton, director of Witnesses to Hunger, said this cut, even if it serves to pay for another effective program, would be devastating to the millions of families who depend on food stamps to get by.
"When an animal is stuck in a trap, sometimes they'll have to bite off their own hand," she said Tuesday. "We're in that situation now. Congress is saying, 'We'll improve your nutrition, but you have to bite off your own hand in order to feed yourself.' We cannot trade off one excellent nutrition program for another."
Weill said he is concerned that the new, more conservative Congress will be much more reluctant to spend money on food stamps, but that he hopes child nutrition issues will receive bipartisan support and play out differently than other budget issues of their kind.
"Food insecurity is very widespread in this country -- it's not a phenomenon of just poor districts or inner-city districts," Weill said. "Well over 300 Congressional districts had ten percent or more households answering yes to this question about struggling with food hardship, so as unemployment lingers, we're hopeful that Congress will be responsive to the need to maintain and strengthen the nutrition programs."
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