September is Hunger Action Month, and Republicans who control the U.S. House of Representatives are marking the occasion by trying to take food from the mouths of poor children, low-wage workers and elderly people.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia is leading an effort to cut $40 billion over the next decade from SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
Since the 2008 financial crisis led to a deep recession, the SNAP program has doubled in size, to $80 billion. That money has largely gone to help feed individuals and families who have been unemployed or under-employed.
While Wall Street and corporate America have recovered just fine, many poor and middle-income people continue to struggle. Still, Republican leaders think it's time to economize by going after the $4.50 average daily SNAP benefit that goes to millions of poor people, including 875,000 Kentuckians.
GOP leaders claim that the SNAP program is rife with abuse, yet they have produced little evidence of that beyond isolated media reports of someone buying steak or lobster with food stamps or continuing to claim benefits after cashing a big lottery ticket.
House Republicans seem less concerned about the tens of billions of dollars now wasted on agriculture subsidy programs that largely benefit agribusiness companies and wealthy farmers, including some members of Congress. The House farm bill this summer left out SNAP funding and cut land conservation efforts, but agriculture subsidies for the wealthy were increased.
One example of this hypocrisy is U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, a Tennessee Republican and Tea Party favorite who has been a vocal advocate for cutting SNAP. Since 1999, Fincher has collected nearly $3.5 million in government farm subsidies. Other members of his cotton-farming family have received millions more.
The food bank directors and social workers who deal with hunger face-to-face every day have been unanimous in their condemnation of Cantor's plan, according to news reports.
To get a feel for the local situation, I visited Lexington-based God's Pantry, a non-profit that supplies food to people in 50 Kentucky counties through a network of warehouses and 300 affiliate churches and charities.
God's Pantry CEO Marian Guinn said there is no way private charities can begin to make up for drastic cuts in government benefits in this still-recovering economy. Republican criticisms of SNAP are overblown, she said.
"You can always pull out examples of abuse in any situation or any program," Guinn said. "But we see (SNAP) as a really effective way to get needed resources, but not all the resources that a family needs for their food."
God's Pantry gathers food from government commodity programs, plus donations from groceries and the food industry, and buys fresh produce with donations from the public. (Charity Navigator, a charity watchdog group, has consistently given God's Pantry top ratings for money management and efficiency.)
God's Pantry provides food to more than 211,000 people — nearly one in seven — in its 50-county service area each year, Guinn said. Census data shows that about 310,000 people in the region live in poverty.
Statewide, the government estimates that about 715,000 people are "food insecure." If Congress makes substantial cuts in SNAP, that number will explode.
Guinn said a typical God's Pantry client is a white woman in her early 40s with one or two children who works part-time and earns $1,000 or less a month. Client households tend to have low levels of education and often are dealing with health problems. Forty-one percent of client households have children, and 18 percent have elderly people.
"Many of these are people who before the recession were living middle-class or lower middle-class lives," she said.
God's Pantry clients must be referred by social-service agencies to make sure they have a genuine need.
"The sentiment in Washington is really concerning to us," Guinn said.
"Because federal programs are very important for us, there certainly are lots of opportunities for advocacy," Guinn said.
"Advocacy" is a polite way of putting it. I will be more blunt: Call or write your congressman today. Tell him that if he votes to take food away from the poor while shoveling public money to the wealthy, he should be ashamed.
HOW TO HELP
To donate to or volunteer, call (859) 255-6592 or go to Godspantry.org
Greater Lexington CROP-Hunger Walk
What: A 3.2-mile walk to raise $30,000 for hunger-relief efforts; 75 percent goes to Church World Service and 25 percent to God's Pantry.
When: 3 p.m. Sept. 29
Where: Second Presbyterian Church, 460 E. Main St.
Contact your Congressman
Rep. Andy Barr of Lexington, (202) 225-4706, Barr.house.gov
Rep. Hal Rogers of Somerset, (202) 225-4601, Halrogers.house.gov
Rep. Thomas Massie of Vanceburg, (202) 225-3465, Massie.house.gov