Pride and prejudice:Food assistance cuts could hit WNC hard

A moveable feast: Many organizations, businesses and individuals have stepped up to help address food insecurity; vegetarian restaurant Rosetta’s Kitchen offers a sliding-scale, pay-what-you-can meal to those who need help. photo by Max Cooper
A moveable feast: Many organizations, businesses and individuals have stepped up to help address food insecurity; vegetarian restaurant Rosetta’s Kitchen offers a sliding-scale, pay-what-you-can meal to those who need help. photo by Max Cooper

Looming cuts in food-assistance funding could spell big trouble for Western North Carolina residents, says Joshua Stack, communications and marketing coordinator for MANNA FoodBank. Funds for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, may be cut by $4.2 billion this year, he notes.

“Stats we accessed showed that $160 million in food-stamp benefits were redeemed in Western North Carolina last year, and $60 million in Buncombe County alone," Stack reports. "There's no way we could make up for severe cuts in SNAP, so we spend a lot of time engaging state and federal lawmakers to ensure they know these issues are prevalent.”

Nationwide, U.S. citizens redeemed $64.5 billion worth of SNAP benefits in 2010, a $50 billion increase over the 2000 figure, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And as the economy worsened, a broader range of people found themselves turning to SNAP.

“Even people that are employed and that may have been historically considered part of the middle class have either been losing their job or losing their hours, so the expansion of SNAP benefits has gone up into what has traditionally been considered the middle class," notes UNCA economics professor Leah Greden Mathews.

The Asheville area ranked third-worst for food insecurity and hardship last year, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Food Research and Action Center. And a 2010 survey by Feeding America, whose national network includes 200 food banks, found one in six WNC residents utilizing emergency food assistance. MANNA distributed 9.7 million pounds of food to its 230 partner agencies last year.

"Situation poverty has increased because of the rise of unemployment," Stack explains. "If that part-time job you had at night goes away or if you have significant health-care costs, all of that is going to put you in line for a food pantry. It may be that you've paid rent, your utilities, bought gas for your car and winter clothes for your kid, and there's only one place you can go to put food in your pantry — one of our agencies."

Government-suplied food is essential for local agencies feeding the hungry. “The USDA provides more than 1.8 million pounds of food for MANNA FoodBank," notes Stack. "A significant reduction in these commodities would be a devastating blow to MANNA and our partner agencies' ability to respond to a need that hasn't diminished over the last three years."

Stack says he's hopeful they'll be able to preserve some funding. "MANNA works closely with Feeding America to help implement advocacy across the national network of food banks," he explains. "Our North Carolina delegation is responsive and takes our meetings and values our input on the condition of poverty in WNC as it relates to food insecurity. We hope they'll continue to fund these programs at current levels."

UNCA associate professor Amy Lanou agrees, saying cuts to SNAP would further hurt an imperfect system “that's not casting a wide enough net anyway. There are groups of people that are left out."

Lanou, a senior nutrition scientist for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, calls the advocacy surrounding health policy a "constant battle."

The Food Stamp Program began in 1939 to help people with little to no income purchase food. In 1984, the Electronic Benefits Transfer system replaced paper food stamps. Lanou calls the change “a huge plus," saying the inconspicuous card has resulted in “a whole lot less stigma about using food stamps. It's often even kind of hard to tell if they are, unless they tell the cashier or the cashier is having trouble scanning things."

For the same reason, the Food Stamp Program changed its name to SNAP in 2002. But for some, notes Mathews, it's still tough to admit they need help.

"It's much more predominant today to have SNAP beneficiaries being employed and having been households that never would have considered taking assistance," she reports.

Stack, meanwhile, reminds people that they've already paid into the SNAP program, so they should feel no shame about accessing assistance.

"Mountain pride has a lot to do with whether many of our neighbors will seek food assistance, whether it's their local pantry or the Department of Social Services," he points out. "We hope people realize they've been paying into these programs for years as taxpayers, and they deserve to take advantage of the system."

— Megan Dombroski is a senior journalism student at UNCA.

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