There is little more basic to our lives - or to America's promise of freedom and pursuit of human potential - than enough to eat.
Yet 50 million Americans are food insecure, a U.S. Department of Agriculture measure meaning they cannot always count on having enough food for a healthy, active life for everyone in their household. They may not go hungry all the time but are often forced to make trade-offs between basic needs, deciding, for example, to skip a trip to the grocery store this week because missing the rent could risk homelessness.
SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as food stamps are now called, was designed by Congress to help people facing unemployment or other economic crisis meet their immediate need for food while they get back on their feet. Benefits are limited to three months for individual adults and six months for families with children before people must re-apply. SNAP benefits are a safety net, not a hammock.
The number of Alaskans using SNAP has grown to almost 95,000 or 13% of the population as the nation's economic recovery is very slow to reach those who are most vulnerable. In Alaska food stamps provide an average of $1.89 a meal and run out for most people with a week and a half still left in the month. Seventy-seven percent of SNAP households in Alaska include those least able to participate in the workforce - children, seniors, and people with disabilities.
The automatic cuts to SNAP on Friday when the temporary boost from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act expired will come down hard on Alaskans, amounting to a decrease of $42-$65 a month for a family of four. A bite this big would leave most of us crossing pricier items like fish or meat and fresh produce off the grocery list. For SNAP recipients, this means eliminating entire meals from the menu.
At the same time these cuts are hitting everyone who counts on food stamps, a Congressional conference committee on the Farm Bill is considering further cuts to SNAP - $4 billion over 10 years approved by the Senate and 10 times that much, $40 billion over 10 years, approved by the House.
Food Bank of Alaska collects and distributes 6 million pounds of food annually. Almost 65% of this comes from the generous businesses that grow, bake, wholesale, and retail food and from community food drives and donations. However, charity alone is not adequate to meet the needs of 106,000 food insecure Alaskans (that's 11,000 more than use SNAP), a number that includes 1 in 5 of our state's children. Our national partner, Feeding America, estimates that the Nov. 1 SNAP cuts represent 1.9 billion lost meals annually. This figure equals over half the number of meals distributed annually by Feeding America's entire national network of 200 food banks. The cuts approved by the House of Representatives amount to 15 billion meals over 10 years - a gap impossible for private generosity alone to bridge.
Your letter writer of Nov. 4 ("Shame on cuts to food program") should know we can be proud that our Congressman Don Young stood up for hungry Alaskans and in September voted against the $40 billion cuts in the House bill. Rep. Young estimated at the time that about 10,000 Alaskans could lose SNAP benefits under the legislation, including many in rural Alaska who depend on SNAP to supplement subsistence hunting and fishing.
We Alaskans are fortunate our two U.S. senators as well as our congressman are dedicated to ending hunger in our state. Please support them in finding a resolution to the Farm Bill that does not leave hungry Alaskans out of the American dream.
To paraphrase statesman Adlai Stevenson, "A hungry American is not a free American."
Michael Miller is executive director of Food Bank of Alaska.