Kentucky voices

Ky. Voices: Food banks stretched thin, no substitute for food stamps

September 6, 2013 

When Congress returns to Washington next week, the plight of families struggling to put food on the table should be high on the list of priorities.

According to data released this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 15.6 percent of Kentucky households report serious problems affording adequate nutritious food.

Of the approximately 285,000 Kentucky households experiencing food insecurity, some 113,000 experienced very low food security—meaning that one or more household members have had to reduce their food intake.

These new food-insecurity numbers come as the House majority leadership, which recently passed a partial Farm Bill that did not include a nutrition title, is expected to introduce a bill that would strip $40 billion in funding from SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), cutting millions of people from the program and reducing benefits for many others.

A common refrain from supporters of such cuts is that food banks, churches and other charities can and should step in and pick up the slack.

But food banks in Kentucky are stretched to the limit now. The number of people fed by members of the Kentucky Association of Food Banks increased 84 percent from 2006 to 2010.

The drastic cuts being considered by the House would only add to a surge in need that food banks are already preparing for. A temporary boost to SNAP benefits enacted at the height of the recession is scheduled to end Nov. 1, affecting all participants.

In Kentucky, 875,000 people will see a cut in their food assistance benefits, according to data released recently by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For a family of three, that will mean $29 less a month to put food on the table, equivalent to 16 meals a month — and many of them will turn to food pantries, soup kitchens and others for help.

While an earlier House proposal included some increased funding for food banks, it would be far too little to cover the surge in demand that would result from the SNAP cuts.

Kentucky's farmers have been important partners in the fight against hunger by providing fruits and vegetables through our Farms to Food Banks program; however, the amount of produce received from Kentucky farmers was less than one percent of the 52.6 million pounds of food distributed by our members last year.

Private financial donations aren't likely to fill much of the gap either. Americans are charitable people, but overall giving dropped during the recession as family budgets were squeezed and, as of last year, remained below the 2007 level, according to Indiana University's Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

Good intentions are no substitute for sound policy. Drastically cutting SNAP and expecting private organizations to fill the gap is unrealistic. Kentucky can't afford to send any more children to bed hungry.

Tamara Sandberg is executive director of the Kentucky Association of Food Banks.

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