Don't cut food programs to balance budget

Marian Guinn is chief executive officer of God's Pantry Food Bank in Lexington.
Marian Guinn is chief executive officer of God's Pantry Food Bank in Lexington.

As Congress crafts a budget that addresses our nation's long-term fiscal challenges, God's Pantry Food Bank and our network partners — 320 food pantries, meal sites, shelters, senior centers and after-school programs — are urging our elected officials to safeguard nutrition assistance and other safety-net programs.

The number of families struggling to make ends meet increased significantly during the recession. With unemployment still hovering near 10 percent, the need for food assistance remains high, and the food bank and our network are already pressed to meet the need in our communities.

Congress is proposing cuts that would eliminate federal food assistance for hundreds of thousands of low-income seniors, women, infants and children, pushing more people to local charities for food assistance. At the same time, Congress would reduce support for local emergency food providers, like God's Pantry. Not only will our food bank be unable to meet the increased demand for food assistance with these cuts, but we will have to reduce levels of support for existing clients.

Programs such as the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which primarily aids low-income seniors, and the Emergency Food Assistance Program, known as TEFAP, make sure that the most vulnerable Kentuckians have enough to eat.

The commodities program is an efficient and effective use of federal resources, providing more than 23,000 seniors in Kentucky with a monthly box of nutritious food tailored to provide nutrients typically lacking in seniors' diets.

TEFAP is an income-based federal program that provides food at no cost to low-income Americans in need of short-term hunger relief through organizations such as God's Pantry Food Bank. While we rely on generous donations from individual donors and community and business partners, TEFAP is the backbone of the charitable food system, providing a large percentage of the food that flows through our local hunger-relief agencies.

Last year, God's Pantry Food Bank distributed more than 6.1 million pounds of TEFAP commodities, more than 34 percent of our total distribution. Without support from TEFAP, our food bank and network partners could not provide even the current levels of food, nor could we meet added demand if the funding levels and structure of other federal nutrition programs are eroded.

More than 211,000 of our neighbors in Central and Eastern Kentucky rely on the food bank and our partner agencies to help feed their families. Last year, 17.8 million pounds of food was distributed through our partner agencies in 50 counties. We are serving 33 percent more people now than in 2006. This year alone, many agencies are seeing double-digit increases.

If TEFAP food purchases drop as expected by 50 percent, God's Pantry and our network partners will likely face empty pantries, beginning this summer and continuing into the holiday season and beyond. With one in six of our Kentucky neighbors struggling with hunger, demand for charitable food remains high across the Bluegrass State. We must keep TEFAP and all of the nutritional safety-net programs strong; the health of our communities depends on it.

Deficit reduction shouldn't come at the expense of the most vulnerable among us.