Americans struggling to put food on the table is the real national emergency

Americans struggling to put food on the table is the real national emergency
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Our nation is facing a serious food crisis, one not caused by a natural disaster but by the president of the United States and enabled by the GOP Senate.

As funding for federal nutrition programs is dwindling during what is now the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, the health of 38.5 million individuals who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as “Food Stamps”) — and hundreds of thousands more furloughed federal employees — is at unnecessary risk. Negotiation should be second to the wellbeing of the American people. Political leaders only need to agree on one thing right now and that is that the federal government must reopen to reverse the effects of this manmade emergency and prevent further damage.

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A bill to reopen all agencies except the Department of Homeland Security, which is at the center of the shutdown, has already passed the House and was taken up by the U.S. Senate on Thursday — and failed. Most Republicans, did not support this bill, and instead voted on the Trump’s bill, which is not a compromise and will only prolong this shutdown. We urge Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPatagonia says to shut stores for a few hours during Global Climate Strike Overnight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Pelosi unveils signature plan to lower drug prices | Trump says it's 'great to see' plan | Progressives pushing for changes On The Money: House votes to avert shutdown, fund government through November | Judge blocks California law requiring Trump tax returns | Senate panel approves three spending bills MORE (R-Ky.) and his Republican colleagues to stop using the health of the American people and our country’s institutions as bargaining chips to promote the Trump administration agenda. 

Americans cannot compensate for the government’s negligence.

Make no mistake — the reality that millions of Americans are struggling to put food on the table is a national emergency. While 800,000 government employees are going without a paycheck, consider that six in 10 Americans don’t have $500 to cover unplanned expenses. Many furloughed employees are joining the millions of low-income families unable to make ends meet at a time when the most common nutrition assistance program is running out of funds.

SNAP, the most effective anti-hunger program in the U.S., is in jeopardy. The federal program, which is only funded through Feb. 28, as the shutdown continues, improves food security and keeps millions above the poverty line. It also generates economic activity as $1 of SNAP benefits generates $1.70 into the economy, supporting local communities and creating jobs. With one of the most rigorous payment error measurement systems of any public benefit, only a 1 percent fraud rate, there is no replacement for SNAP.

States simply do not have the funding to replace federal nutrition programs. The cost is too great.  If Massachusetts, a state of midsized population, cannot afford to cover one month of SNAP for the state’s roughly 760,000 residents utilizing the program, how then will Texas fare, with more than 3.5 million residents using SNAP to access food?

The negative impact of the federal shutdown on everything from the economy to healthcare costs to the nation’s workforce will be lasting. 

The state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food is referred to as food insecurity. Experiencing it — even for a single, short period — carries significant risks, including higher incidence of chronic, diet-related health conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease. Food insecure households typically spend about 45 percent more on health care than food secure households.

Food insecurity has long-term implications. A hungry student cannot learn. A parent stressed about feeding his children is unable to focus on other pressing priorities, like securing employment and stable housing. An elder managing an illness cannot improve her health without food. Hunger results in significant educational, economic, and health disparities. Without SNAP, the need will be overwhelming. And charitable causes cannot replace the program either. For every meal charity can provide, SNAP provides 12, due to economies of scale. We have the resources in America to ensure no child or individual goes hungry. Yet, the nation is on the edge of leaving 42 million without enough to eat.

Hunger is a non-partisan issue.

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As state leaders are required to balance their budgets, governors should step up and remind the president and  Congress that states and charity cannot replace federal support. We need the federal shutdown to end. Senators need to hear from governors now, as they did in 2017 when a bipartisan group of governors effectively worked across party lines and influenced the prevention of healthcare repeal without replacement. Governors, you have a responsibility to raise your voice against the looming, but avoidable food crisis that will harm the people you represent.

Come together and put pressure on the Senate to vote to end the shutdown and to do it quickly, for everyone’s sake. It is the only viable solution to protecting SNAP and as an extension, the health and future of millions of Americans.  

Erin McAleer is the president of Project Bread, a statewide anti-hunger organization in Massachusetts. Individuals struggling without enough to eat are encouraged to call Project Bread’s FoodSource Hotline (1-800-645-8333 or TTY 1-800-377-1292) to be connected with local food resources. Assistance available in multiple languages.