07/27/2011 10:24 am ET | Updated Sep 26, 2011

Taking Food From the Most Vulnerable Among Us Isn't a Budget Fix

As the debate over budget cuts heat up in Washington, let's hope cooler heads prevail when it comes to supporting something as basic as food assistance for those in need. Taking food away from those who are struggling the most should not be considered a budget fix. Without proper access to food, the system will begin to break down.

Cuts currently under debate by Congress threaten to drastically reduce vital food support for those already enduring the greatest brunt of the economic downturn. Proposed cuts to The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) and SNAP, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps would be devastating to those who are already struggling to just get by.

Today, key economic indicators show that the recovery is slowing and food costs are increasing. As a country, how can we talk about strengthening our ability to compete in the future by making decisions at the expense of the weakest and most vulnerable among us? If the people in need whom we serve cannot be helped, we are putting more at risk than our economic recovery.

In New York City, one of the richest cities in the world, food poverty is around every corner. More than three million New York City residents have difficulty affording food. Financial pressures such as unemployment, health issues, health insurance issues and low wages continue to strain the budgets of those with low to moderate incomes. Many are already making sacrifices such as choosing between buying food or paying rent or getting needed medications.

If the government proceeds with cuts, organizations nationwide will be forced to turn away families in need at a time of rising demand. In NYC alone proposed cuts would eliminate at least 10 million meals provided through the Food Bank for New York City's network of 1,000 community-based member programs, such as soup kitchens, food pantries, senior centers and more.

Single mothers, families, seniors, veterans, the working poor and people with disabilities rely on soup kitchens and food pantries. If the funding stops, how will the increasing need for such services be met? It is certain these programs will be forced to turn away those in need due to empty shelves, reduced hours and services, and ultimately, leave no food choices for underserved families and their children.

One in five New York City residents relies on the Food Bank for New York City, a non-profit dedicated to fighting hunger on three fronts: emergency food, income support and nutrition education. We ensure our communities have access to the basic needs for their survival. Feeding people is just the first step in addressing the whole picture of those struggling with food poverty. Cutting the ability of community-based programs to provide something as basic as food will have far-reaching negative effects. We risk seeing more failing students in our schools, sicker people in our neighborhoods and more crimes committed on our streets. We are cutting off the arms and legs of the system most needed to get people in need back on their feet.

The arguments circulating around the budget cuts raise concerns about needing to make difficult decisions. "We don't want to force future generations to pay for the debts we are accumulating today," some say. But eliminating the safety net for food to the most vulnerable among us is the wrong decision. Depriving today's poor, elderly and children of food support will saddle our future generations with far worse than debts. They will be holding the remains of a society that thought it could get ahead by stepping on the backs of the poor and hungry. Now is a time for advocacy, to tell Congress taking food away from those who need it most is not only not a budget fix, but an action that will carry multiple repercussions that weaken the fabric of our society.

Lucy Cabrera, Ph.D., CAE, President and CEO of the Food Bank for New York City