By Linda Bloom*
If Congress drastically cuts the federal food stamp program, religious institutions will not be able to fill the gap for hungry families.
That was the message delivered by religious leaders from southeastern states who participated in an Oct. 30 media briefing.
The leaders expressed their concerns the same day as the first public meeting of the Congressional farm bill conference committee in Washington. The U.S. House version of the farm bill would cut the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the nation’s primary food assistance program, by $39 billion.
In addition, on Nov. 1, the benefits of all 48 million people in the SNAP program are going to be cut across the board, for an average of 8 percent, said James Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center in Washington.
Every southeastern state exceeds the U.S. national child poverty rate of 22.6 percent, according to the action center’s latest analysis. The SNAP caseload in eight southeastern states has increased 65.9 percent over the past five years.
“As the SNAP benefits are decreasing, we’re seeing an increase in individual needs in our area,” said Bishop Paul Leeland, who represents 650 congregations in the United Methodist Alabama-West Florida Annual (regional) Conference. “The majority of these people are children and older adults.”
Taking up the slack
Religious leaders criticized the assumption of some federal lawmakers that faith communities can pick up the cost of cuts to SNAP. To make up for the proposed reductions, each religious congregation in the U.S. would need to increase its food assistance by nearly $15,000 a year for the next 10 years, totaling more than $145,000, according to Bread for the World.
“Florida is undergoing a tremendous impact from unemployment,” said the Rev. Russell Meyer, executive director, Florida Council of Churches, and a clergy member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “If SNAP is cut, as proposed… the estimate is one out of three Florida families will face food insecurity at some point during the week.”
Religious groups in Florida, particularly suburban churches, would have to pick up the added responsibility for feeding the hungry in what “represents a tax on people of faith,” he argued.
The pricetag on feeding America’s poor doesn’t change just because the government shirks its duties and expects religious groups to fill in, Meyer pointed out. “It’s shifting a real cost in society onto a particular subset of society who feels the burden,” he explained. “Many people who don’t go to church feel the burden as well.”
Some lawmakers eager to slash food stamp funding seem to have a disconnect with what is happening in their own communities, the religious leaders noted.
North Carolina Bishop Hope Morgan Ward believes the key is to work on relationships with those in need.
Even some church members, she admitted, do not know the name of one child in living in poverty. United Methodists in her state, she said, “are engaged in increasing relationships with people who need SNAP assistance. We do not allow people we know and live with to go without food.”
Unable to meet the demand
The Rev. D. Scott Weimer, senior pastor, North Avenue Presbyterian Church in downtown Atlanta, said there is plenty of interfaith cooperation to assist those in need but an “increased strain in our ability to feed hungry people.”
His own congregation hosts a day care center and preschool for homeless children and they have discovered that many of the children who take advantage of free school lunch programs “are not eating on weekends and holidays.” Although religious leaders are encouraging churches to adopt schools to provide weekend meals, “what we are discovering is we can’t keep up even with that demand.”
The Rev. Connie Shelton, director of communications for the United Methodist Mississippi Annual Conference, told how the congregation at Heritage United Methodist Church in Hattiesburg discovered the importance of their backpack food ministry when a teacher described the excitement of one fifth-grade boy about having the gift of food for the weekend.
Mississippi residents already are generous to those in need, she said, but can’t absorb the gaps the proposed food stamp cuts will create. “Cutting a program without changing a system and culture is not the answer.”
Seniors also are suffering, said the Rev. Eric Mount, of the Kentucky Council of Churches’ Justice Advocacy Commission, who has observed both senior citizens and the programs that help feed them struggling to stay afloat. Some seniors, he added, are “having to choose between paying their (medical) co-pay and buying food.”