Senate Must Appreciate Impact of Rising Food Costs

Last week the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced a 5.7 percent hike in food prices—the largest one-year increase in at least seven years.

Some attribute these high prices to the growing demand for corn-based ethanol, which has caused the price of corn to skyrocket in just the past two years. Others point to high fuel prices, which increase transportation costs for shipping food.

Whatever the cause, it is clear that the rising cost of food is being felt most deeply by hungry people. A 5.7 percent increase makes a big difference to the 35 million Americans who live in households that already don’t have enough to eat.

Food banks are scrambling to meet the increased need for food assistance, but their resources are limited. Requests for emergency food assistance will likely go up even more in the next few months as winter heating costs rise. The choice between buying groceries and paying the utility bill is all too real for millions of people.

Now, more than ever, we need to strengthen federal nutrition programs. The Senate can do that when they reauthorize the farm bill in the next few weeks. Expanding the Food Stamp Program—our nation’s first line of defense against hunger—is the best way to meet the needs of families most deeply impacted by rising food prices.

Unfortunately, the food stamp benefit is already too low to enable families to afford an adequate nutritious diet. The current average benefit is only $1 per person per meal. The jump in food prices is going to make it even harder.

The least Congress can do is to address the already inadequate food stamp benefit by increasing the standard deduction.

Congress should also give a boost to The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), also part of the farm bill. Strengthening TEFAP will help the food bank network, which is scrambling to meet the increased need for emergency food assistance.

The Senate Agriculture Committee plans to take up the farm bill this week, with a full Senate vote to follow. The House version of the farm bill, voted on in July, provides a $4.2 billion increase for nutrition programs overall, including $3.3 billion for the Food Stamp Program.

The Senate must take to heart the impact of rising food costs on the most vulnerable Americans when they vote on the farm bill. Democratic leadership have a moral responsibility to make nutrition programs a priority and increase funding for the Food Stamp Program, at a bare minimum matching the $3.3 billion House proposal.